September 01, 2014
Riya V. Anandwala

Area High School Students Work with Saint Louis University Researcher on Spacecraft Launch

About 35 students worked with 20 SLU faculty on STEM projects this summer


Matt Kinnison
Eesha Sabherwal
Kevin Zheng








ST.LOUIS — As Michael Swartwout, Ph,D., worked with his team on Saint Louis University's third satellite launch this summer, he had additional helping hands — three area high school students.

For six weeks every year, about 35 high school juniors work with nearly 20 Saint Louis University faculty members on a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) projects, as part of the Students and Teachers as Research Scientists (STARS) program that offers students an opportunity to be mentored by top scientists in St. Louis.

Students, who are entering their senior year of high school, work under the supervision of practicing research scientists and present a research paper at the end of the program.

An assistant professor in the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering at Parks College of Engineering, Swartwout's main goal this summer was to integrate and test space vehicles, and also understand the history and future of space mission failures.

"In these six weeks, we get to teach them what engineering really is and demystify the research process. They understand and learn how we actually make things work," he said. "In our lab, students get the opportunity to learn the front end as well as the back end work, which gives them an idea about the whole project."

Michael Swartwout, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of
engineering at SLU.

Eesha Sabherwal, one of the students in Swartwout's lab this summer, learned several things about electrical engineering while working on the RASCAL spacecraft project, which will be launched in 2016. She learned how the algorithm and circuits work, how to evaluate what is working, the steps involved in an experimental process and what tests to perform in intervals.

RASCAL is a two-spacecraft mission to demonstrate key technologies for proximity operations and space situational awareness: infrared imaging, 6DOF propulsion, RF proximity sensing, and automated operations.

Her piece of the project was to evaluate the program that uses pictures of the light bulbs on one of the satellites in space, which determines the position of the camera on the other satellite.

"This is the first time I've been exposed to how research projects and labs work, usually we don't do such work in high school. It makes me more interested in electrical engineering," said Sabherwal.

Another student Matt Kinnison, worked on the real-world implementation of the spacecraft - testing the new 3D printer technology to build a propulsion system for RASCAL will be launched in 2016. His main focus was to answer the question - does the tank leak?

"I want to be an aerospace engineer, and this is great experience. It's difficult to find anything like this before college," Kinnison said. "I hope being able to do this kind of research helps me in the future."

While Sabarwal and Kinnison gained a lot of technical knowledge from this project, for Kevin Zheng, working in Swartwout's lab was a leap forward.

Zheng, another high school student, is a licensed amateur radio operator and has a background in radio frequency engineering. AT SLU, he spent several weeks testing the antenna on campus to make sure it can communicate with the spacecraft.

"It's been a wonderful experience. I've never done antenna testing before," Zheng said. "It's a nice way of exploring the experimental part of amateur radio. It has been a neat experience to work with this lab with Dr. Swartwout."

Swartwout said they didn't hear from the first satellite that was launched last year. There's a long list of reasons of what might have gone wrong, and Zheng's work was to test and eliminate issues that could be potential problems.

"These students filled direct roles in our research project," said Swartwout, who participated in the STARS program for the fourth year. "Their work was very connected with the activity we are doing here, that is, satellite monitoring, and their contribution was extremely valuable."

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