The Challenge

Have you wondered what the clouds look like when you are viewing them from above, instead of from below? Have you ever wanted to know what it feels like to travel faster than the speed of sound?

In the summer of 2019, a class of Project Exploration students took on a project to find out. Along the way, they learned the fundamentals of satellites and rockets and tried their own hand at engineering them.

Satellites today are getting smaller and smaller. The 2 inch x 2 inch x 2 inch satellites carried by the Explore Space rocket are modeled after the PocketQube satellite invented by Stanford Professor Bob Twiggs. PocketQube satellites may be small, but they are real satellites! There are hundreds in space right now, fully functional and orbiting our Earth.

Manufacturing 4 space-ready satellites will be the first challenge for the Explore Space high schoolers! Soldering irons at the ready, the team will be making the circuits and connections that will allow the satellites to sense and process data. To do this effectively, the team will need to learn how sensors work in general, how to program the circuit-boards that control the sensors, how to solder the connections and, importantly, what each particular sensor does and why it is important to collect this data.

The next part of the challenge involves building 4 model rockets, each 3 feet high. The students will launch these rockets in Chicago parks to collect local data. During these launches, the satellites will collect air and environmental quality data such as carbon dioxide and pollution. The students will analyze this data to gain an understanding of environmental issues facing their Chicago neighborhood.

Over Labor Day weekend, the satellites will head to Kansas for a wild ride! This will be the riskiest part of the challenge. Although it is incredibly difficult for high school students to build satellites and launch them locally, we know they will accomplish this challenge because Project Exploration is giving them the support they need. On the other hand, high-speed rockets require both skill and luck to succeed.

The weather must be perfect. The winds must be low. The rocket manufacturing must be flawless to an extreme degree. The launch team will know that the rocket has entered the high-risk zone when they hear the sonic boom and see the characteristic pressure wave as the rocket breaks the sound barrier. Traveling over 1000 miles per hour, the rocket will experience blistering heat caused by friction with the surrounding air. As the fins cut through the air, they will experience the air exerting over 24,000 psi (pounds per square inch) of force, leading to vibration levels that could rip the fins right from the rocket. The chance for loss of structural integrity is very real at these speeds.

It took three days after arriving in Kansas for all of the technical issues to be worked out and for the weather to be just right. The launch team held its breath as the launch controller called out the countdown: 5-4-3-2-1

The rocket broke the speed of sound 2 seconds after lift-off, emitting the characteristic sonic boom and creating the characteristic pressure wave. Two seconds later, the rocket reached its top speed of 1351 mph, or 1.8 Mach. After 42 seconds of flight, the rocket achieved its peak altitude of 33, 239 feet, well over the 30,000 foot goal.

The rocket, and the team, faced an enormous challenge on its path toward success. We took these risks because taking risks is the only way to break down limiting expectations. Our students on the south side of Chicago deserve to have the limitations removed from their dreams. This project was an important success for these students, but there remain many obstacles in their path as they strive for a better future. Will you help us launch their dreams?


Watch Judy launch her rocket!



Launch Gallery

(Click to enlarge)