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PHS, LMS Teams Are USM CubeSat Finalists!

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PHS, LMS Teams Are USM CubeSat Finalists!
Posted on 04/30/2021
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Student teams from Portland High School and Lincoln Middle School are finalists in the University of Southern Maine’s first CubeSat Design Competition. Each team designed a CubeSat, which is a type of miniature satellite used for space research. Earning finalist status means that the teams can now begin building their CubeSats, which will be launched in mid to late June.

The design competition challenged student teams to perform a complex engineering task under constraints in order to spur creativity and gain experience in the engineering design process. This inaugural competition received many strong submissions from across the state, according to Scott Eaton, USM assistant professor of mechanical engineering. A panel of judges selected the following three high school teams and three middle school teams as finalists:

Grade 9-12 Finalists:

Winslow High School - Solar Sail Deployment CubeSat

Falmouth High School -  NAPSat: CubeSat Solar Arrays

Portland High School - MagSat 1: Magnetorquer CubeSat Attitude Control

Grade 6-8 Finalists:

Lincoln Middle School - Atmospheric Monitoring CubeSat

Noble Middle School - Warming Warning: Monitoring Polar Ice Cap Melting

Maranacook Middle School - Irradiated Snot Rocket: Maine-Native Algae Growth CubeSat

The finalists will now progress to the build-and-test phase of the conceptual designs of their CubeSats. To do that, they will receive USM engineering technical support, materials, resources and toolkits to build the payloads and complete a balloon launch demonstrating functionality. The teams will be competing to be the overall competition winner and Best in Show. A launch date is tentatively scheduled for June 26, but may be shifted a week earlier or later based on weather and availability.

“It is so exciting to have two of our schools recognized for their hard work and dedication in developing a project for the CubeSat Challenge, especially given these challenging COVID times,” said Brooke Teller, the district’s STEM Coordinator.

Luc Dietlin, a PHS junior and member of that school’s team who wants to be an engineer, said, “I am very excited about the build-and-test phase. I have never done anything like this, engineering-wise, so this will be a super cool experience and a step into my future. I am really looking forward to it.”

Lincoln Middle School science teacher Adam Nye said the Lincoln team “should be proud of the time and effort they put into their mission.”  The team, called Thinking Outside the Cubicle, is made up of eighth-graders Violet Blum Levine, Barrett Chalmers, Mya Landry, Asa Tussing, EllaAnne Zigler and M.Y.

The team spent months working collaboratively to conceptualize and research their mission before submitting a formal proposal to the competition, he said. “They did all of the groundwork virtually outside of school hours, meeting at least weekly and spending additional time working independently and in small groups,” Nye said.

With its Atmospheric Monitoring CubeSat, he said, “the team aims to use close range sensors to investigate atmospheric composition and temperature in the airspace above Maine while also using longer range sensors to examine whether or not the urban heat island effect (the tendency of urban areas to have higher average temperatures than rural areas) can be observed in Maine by the CubeSat. The CubeSat will be outfitted with deployable solar panels in an effort to prove that this mission, and therefore others like it, can be accomplished without the use of battery power.”

At Portland High School, Andrea Levinsky, the school’s Extended Learning Opportunities Coordinator, organized the team. The team was advised by Ashanthi Maxworth, USM assistant professor of electrical engineering. Brian Cain, a local engineer, mentored the team.

In addition to Dietlin, members of the PHS team, called PHS SpaceWorks, are ninth-graders George Ayer and Adrian Darlington; sophomore Benjamin DiYenno; and junior George Theall.

Dietlin described the team’s CubeSat project: “Basically, a CubeSat is a 10 x 10 x 10 cm box that functions as a small satellite. Our objective was to design one of these, all for under $1,000, and come up with some sort of mission objective. Since our professional advisor from USM was an expert on attitude control, we decided to do something focused on that. If you don't know, attitude control is basically controlling the orientation of the satellite with a bunch of sensors and actuators that let the CubeSat face specific directions. We decided on a magnetorquer system, which is basically a system that detects the magnetic field, the position of the sun, and combines that data to give a specific input to a specific magnetorquer. When given a current, these magnetorquers will put torque on the CubeSat and make it turn. In addition to this system, we added a camera, which will act as evidence that our magnetorquer system works effectively by taking pictures of the Earth. We also needed many different subsystems. These include a computer, power, communications (from ground to the satellite), and structure. All this combines to create a functioning satellite.”

Dietlin explained that while the CubeSats in the competition were designed to be sent into space, that won’t actually happen because the cost would be prohibitive. “So it technically won't be a satellite, but rather a box in the sky,” he said. “USM plans to send it up in a weather balloon, probably up to around 30 kilometers in the sky.”

Dietlin said that he “learned a ton” from the project.

“I was the person who was tasked to work with the magnetorquer system, so there was so much I had to research and learn to actually come up with a system that would work, and know why and how it would work,” he said. “I think above that, I learned how to research new and cool engineering concepts. I think this is the most important, seeing as I want to study mechanical engineering, and I know that there is so much I don't know, and I will have to learn it all to do my job correctly.”

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced school meals.