Virginia students plan for mission to space

In the fall, miniature satellites will be launched into space aboard an International Space Station resupply rocket. Students in Southwest Virginia will be tracking their progress as part of a program designed to inspire technological innovation in a region traditionally focused on coal. 

Tim Cox/Roanoke Times
Wise County students show Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia a miniature satellite during his visit to the Wise County School Board Office in Wise, Va., on May 5.

Students around far Southwest Virginia are planning a mission to space.

It's not some sort of hypothetical or simulated experiment. Miniature satellites that they're experimenting with today, each just a few inches long, will be loaded aboard an International Space Station resupply rocket in November.

Sometime before the rocket arrives, a hatch will open, the so-called ThinSats will drift into space and begin orbiting Earth more than 100 miles away.

Students, ranging from grades three to 12, will have five days to track their satellites and collect data before they burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere.

It's a program years in the making, with around 100 students involved from Wise, Russell, Bland, and Washington counties in Virginia as well as the city of Norton. The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority is sponsoring the program, both with funding and planning help.

Eastside High School science teacher Jane Carter said the program offers a lot of teaching opportunities, from collecting and analyzing data to recognizing weather patterns.

But – possibly more importantly – organizers say it's about inspiring science-interested kids in a part of the state often overlooked for technological innovation.

Jack Kennedy has been spearheading the effort from an unusual position as Wise County's circuit court clerk. It falls outside of his normal duties, but it's part of his lifelong mission to help his hometown dream beyond the coalfields.

This is where Mr. Kennedy is from, working odd jobs in the coalfields when he was young. He went on to earn a law degree and was later elected to the General Assembly. Today, he's the county clerk with a hand in almost everything that happens in Wise related to technology or economic development.

For Kennedy, the ThinSat program is about defying stereotypes, fighting discrimination , and showing everyone – both from within the county and out – that the cutting edge isn't limited to certain ZIP codes.

"We hillbillies must always try harder and reach higher," Kennedy wrote in an email. "So we shall."

The program is getting attention around the state. Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia stopped by Wise County on recently to hear about the ThinSats and to pose for photos with the students building them.

In an interview ahead of the visit, Senator Warner applauded Kennedy's push to launch something like this in his hometown.

"He's always had that kind of notion, and he lives it, that in an interconnected world, you shouldn't have to move," Warner said.

The ThinSat program is in the second phase of three right now.

First, the students received the satellites, which look like a small circuit board that they'll eventually load into a space-proof box. They experimented with them on planet Earth first, leaving the devices in various classrooms and gymnasiums to collect data.

The satellites contain sensors for things like temperature, humidity, altitude, and ultraviolet light brightness, and GPS to track its location. The devices collect thousands of data points each day.

In phase two, the students sent the boxes up in helium balloons to practice wireless communication with the satellites. Soon, they hope to send the devices up in high altitude weather balloons and possibly drones to get them farther off the ground.

Finally, the devices will be loaded onto the Antares rocket, scheduled for blast off from Wallops Island sometime around October or November.

"Many of the cutting-edge technologies being developed and used today require workers with backgrounds in the STEM fields," Warner said in a statement this week. "Programs like ThinSat are key to training students in Southwest Virginia and across the Commonwealth for good paying 21st century jobs."

This article was reported by The Roanoke Times. 

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