RamSat Day

ORNL researcher Andrew Duncan explains the control systems for an unmanned rover to a group of Robertsville students.

A group of Robertsville Middle School students constructing an experimental cube satellite for NASA visited ORNL on Wednesday, February 22, for an afternoon of presentations and demonstrations from Lab staff.

The students were part of Robertsville’s Enrichment Program, composed of seventh and eighth graders skilled in STEM fields. The group’s nanosatellite, named RamSat, was accepted into NASA’s Cube Satellite Launch Initiative in late 2017 and the students have been busy designing, programming and prototyping the satellite ever since. RamSat was the first proposal from a middle school to ever be accepted into the program.

The visit was hosted by the ORNL chapter of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, whose members have visited the school on several occasions and have provided ongoing guidance and technical expertise for the students.

Wednesday’s visit was the first time the student group had ever been to the Lab. The day’s agenda included presentations about the creation of 3D satellite imagery and the applications of various imaging databases, lessons on identifying landscape features from space and hands-on demonstrations with some of ORNL’s unmanned aerial systems.

RamSat is designed to capture and transmit images of the forests surrounding Gatlinburg and Sevierville to track the regrowth of the canopy in the aftermath of the 2016 wildfires. The satellite will carry a camera capable of measuring the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which quantifies the density and health of plant cover in an area, and can help the students track reforestation patterns over time.

RamSat was a collective effort, with everyone working together at every step, said Roberstville STEM teacher Todd Livesay. Though the students had help from partners at ORNL and the Marshall Space Flight Center, it was the students’ idea to use RamSat for a local cause and observe the canopy recovery after the wildfires.

Many of the students plan to pursue STEM fields in the future and said their experience on the RamSat project pushed them to investigate different areas of science. Some liked the programming aspects and customizing the software for their purposes, such as Hudson, an eighth grader, who most enjoyed the researcher presentations on satellite imagery.

“I really liked learning about the photogrammetry,” he said. “It’s neat to see how they used stereoscopy to create the 3D depth maps of some of the places.”

Other students appreciated gaining hands-on experience in hardware fabrication, such as Elijah, who liked learning how to use the CAD software during the design process and plans to become an engineer when he grows up, or Dylan, who is interested in physics and liked tinkering with the CubeSat’s power systems.

Peter Thornton, one of the ORNL mentors for the RamSat team, says the project is nearing the home stretch. The group recently received a number of the satellite’s components, including the solar panels and sun sensors, and will soon begin construction with a planned launch window in 2020. — By Sean Simoneau

For more information about ASPRS, visit https://www.asprs.org/.