It’s not rocket science.
Or, actually, it is.
Paige Northway, a 2007 graduate of Brainerd High School now working on her doctorate in Earth and space sciences, is essentially in the rocket science field after having a hand in the development of a satellite that’s now in outer space.
Northway’s group at the University of Washington-Seattle was one of five student teams from colleges around the country -- including the University of Minnesota -- that participated in NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project, an educational flight opportunity program designed to promote interest and proficiency in science, technology, engineering and math education and develop careers in STEM-related fields.
Each team built a CubeSat, what Northway described as a small, standard satellite many universities have launched in the last decade for research purposes.
“What was cool about it is that it had a propulsion system, and that’s what I worked on,” Northway said during a phone interview Monday, Nov. 11. “So it theoretically is able to move around, and there have not been many CubeSats, especially launched by universities, that can do that.”
Another student on the team worked on a high frequency, high data rate communication system Northway said is fairly novel to aid in the collection and transmission of data from the satellite to Earth.
The group then worked with undergraduate students to build most of the satellite and high school students to put a camera on board. A radio on the CubeSat came from from the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation.
Northway traveled to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wattsville, Virginia, Nov. 2 to watch the satellite be launched into space aboard a Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Her parents, Steve and Lee Anne Northway, made the the trip from Brainerd, while her sister, Stephanie Northway, came from Boston for the event.
“The actual launch was very cool,” Northway said, noting it’s exciting to know the satellite she worked on is in space. “But now it’s kind of hurry up and wait because we’re actually sitting in a box on the Cygnus capsule for the next two months.”
The satellite, connected the International Space Station for now, will be deployed in January, when the University of Washington will be able to take control.
The mission, Northway said, is not a science mission but a technological demonstration mission.
“We’re demonstrating the propulsion system, and we’re demonstrating the communication system, and the reason we would do that is that then it has flown, and so other groups or bigger missions might want to use technology, either what we used because most of it is open-sourced, or something similar,” she said. “So basically we’re proving that the things that we developed work. And the reason that they’re interesting is that they can enable more interesting space missions.”
After graduating from BHS in 2007, Northway earned an undergraduate degree in engineering physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. After earning her doctorate, she plans to stay in the Seattle area to continue her work.
“I’m interested in staying in the space sector,” she said. “Whether I stay in propulsion, or there’s a lot going on in Blue Origin, and there’s a couple smaller places that are doing some pretty exciting work as well, so that’s where I’m looking to go.”