Trinity students are set to take over the International Space Station

12 Dec 2016

Trinity students are set to take over the International Space Station

In an Australian first, coded hardware developed by high school students has been rocketed to space, where Trinity students will take over the International Space Station (ISS) laboratories to run an experiment. Students from Sydney’s Trinity Grammar School aim to run an experiment to determine if solar flares impact satellite acceleration, the results of which could have a significant implication for the world’s space programmes.

Self-confessed ‘space nerds’ and owners of Cuberider, Sebastian Chaoui and Solange Cunin, wanted to bring about a “mini space revolution, so that kids are inspired to take up STEM education in the same way that the Apollo era inspired youth in the 1960s and 70s, by engaging students through the awesomeness of space exploration,” enthused Mr Chaoui. The pair hatched an idea while interns at Saber Astronautics, the result of which is Cuberider, a private, self-funded organisation.

Cuberider offers a programme that enables schools in Australia to run experiments in the ISS, with the first taking in place in December 2016. They (engineers, students and teachers) are the first group to send an Australian payload to the ISS, and the Cuberider mission is one of the first Australian space missions to take place in more than a decade. While NASA has run a similar programme with high school students in the United States (US), this was the first time it has been done outside that country.

Select Trinity Grammar School students from Years 7 to 11 have devoted their time to participate in the programme. Forty boys submitted written applications for specialised positions within Cuberider teams, going through a process very similar to applying for a job. It was highly competitive with only 25 boys selected. Trinity Senior School Physics Teacher and winner of a prestigious Teachers’ Guild of NSW World Teachers’ Recognition Award, Erin Munn, was astounded by the number and quality of responses. “Some boys created web pages with interactive portfolios, the amount of effort that went into the application stage was brilliant,” said Mrs Munn.

The Trinity Cuberider group is made up of four teams: Research and publishing; Experimentalists and mathematicians; Hardware; and Coders. Within each team, each member is assigned a function including leadership and integrator roles to ensure teams communicate and work well with each other. The first step for the ‘Cuberiders’ was to come up with an experiment to run. While several ideas were explored, it was Year 8 student Ryan Whitford who came up with the practicum that was ultimately chosen by the group.

Trinity boys aim to determine if the ISS’s acceleration around the earth is affected by the particulate matter from coronal mass ejections (solar flares). “The experiment will measure the magnetic field versus the change in acceleration,” said Ryan. The first step will be to test if there is an increase in magnetic field strength as the coronal mass ejection passes. Then the boys will attempt to correlate the information with the motion of the ISS to determine if there is a drag effect on the spacecraft.

It’s a novel experiment: “The hard part was coming up with an experiment that hadn’t been carried out before, so if it turns out that solar flares cause drag on the spacecraft, it will have a huge impact,” commented Mrs Munn. Drag on the ISS leads to increased fuel consumption as it burns energy to push itself back into the correct orbital, preventing it from crashing to earth. Knowing what causes the drag means the effects could be minimised through electromagnetic shielding. “The boys’ research could lead to the creation of an artificial ionosphere that protects the ISS from drag of this type, significantly reducing fuel consumption,” continued Mrs Munn.

Mrs Munn concedes the most difficult part of her job in running the group is stepping back and allowing the boys to come up with their own ideas and methods of running the experiment. “It was very hard for the boys to start with, as they were looking to me to suggest ways theories could be tested. Instead I had to ask them ‘how are you going to test that?’.”

It took four weeks of twice-weekly lunch time meetings for the boys to come up with their own novel experiment. They had to establish that their theory could be tested; that it could be achieved within the time and hardware constraints; that they could code the experiment; and that they could collect the information and process the data.

The boys are full of praise for the programme. “Cuberider has taught me a lot of valuable skills throughout the year. I really think without this I would be lost. It taught me how to work as a team and develop something amazing,” said John Sakoutis of Year 8.

Year 12 student Kieren Pearson is equally impressed. “The Cuberider programme helped me to find my passion and discover how I could utilise it to solve problems. The greatest part of the project was being able to work with others in a supporting and encouraging environment and develop my team building and communication skills. I’m really enjoying being part of something big!”

So just how are the boys measuring what, for most of us, is an abstract thing? The School was provided with a Sagan Board which is run by a raspberry pie base (small computer). The Sagan Board is a circuit board that carries a series of sensors that can measure different attributes such as acceleration and magnetic field strength in three dimensions, as well as the ability to take images. The information collection process was coded by Trinity students using Python (programming language).

The boys have coded and tested the Sagan board, telling it which sensors to use, when to turn them on and off, how often a sample is to be taken, and what they want to record. The coded memory chip from the board was sent to Houston, Texas. NASA then placed the chip into their Sagan board, and from there it was shipped to Japan where it was blasted into space via rocket H-IIB to the ISS. Astronauts have installed the Sagan Board and will initiate the students’ experiment. The data will be beamed back in real time, reaching Trinity students within minutes.

Testing the board was key in ensuring success. The Sagan Board is a new generation of board that was untested in this environment, so Cuberider arranged a weather balloon test to determine if the board would hold up. The balloon with Sagan Board attached was launched into the stratosphere to ensure all the components continued to function properly and weren’t affected by stressors. “The sample data from the test was provided to us so that our boys could start looking at how they are going to process the raw data. It’s really amazing,” said Mrs Munn.

There are no guarantees that the experiment will work – or if it does, that it will return any results – but the boys from Trinity have done everything in their power to ensure that the experiment has the best possible chance of success, with the help and guidance of the Cuberider team.

Cuberider provides support throughout the programme. Students are able to tap into an online forum which sees questions answered, or coding checked to point out any potential issues. Schools can also share information with each other through the forum, to support collaboration. Mrs Munn has found that the forum has been of real benefit: “the Cuberider team has been so helpful and our boys have been getting some incredible feedback. There is a real possibility that the experiment may return a null result – there may not be a measurable impact on acceleration from solar flares – but the boys are making sure that the experiment is valid.”

Aside from the excitement of performing an experiment in space, Trinity boys gain many benefits from the Cuberider programme. Mrs Munn says she has structured the programme at Trinity to run just like any commercial research project would, “You don’t ever have one person knowing every piece of information. You have to work with specialists in each field if you’re going to achieve something big and there are tight timeframes. The launch of the space shuttle won’t wait because one of the boys is sick or has basketball practice!”

Boys learn about time management, and working as a team towards a singular aim. “Because many of the boys are high achievers, working in a team has been a challenge, but it’s been great to see them working that way, particularly seeing Year 7 boys interact with Year 11 boys,” commented Mrs Munn.

While the role of the hardware, coding, and mathematics/experimentalists teams is quite clear cut, the function of the research and publishing team is less so. This team is responsible for ensuring that the research is presented in a commercially palatable way. “Coding is very important because in authentic science, not many things are done by hand anymore, but the research and publishing team has a big job ahead of them too. They must present the data in a way that the general public and importantly funding bodies, will understand. It’s a particularly important element in science these days,” said Mrs Munn.

If the experiment is successful and solar flares are found to have an impact on acceleration, it will likely trigger further studies and could impact future space programmes. “It’s really exciting to think that the idea for an experiment in space came from one of the youngest boys, and that it could have such far reaching implications. Either way, I’m so proud of the boys’ commitment and dedication to the project,” concluded Mrs Munn.

Trinity boys watched the launch of the H-IIB rocket that saw their microchip blasted into space from the Tanegashima Space Centre, Japan at midnight 9 December 2016. Cuberider held a launch party with students watching the rocket launch via live streaming.

For these Trinity boys, the sky is anything but the limit.

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