ASU to help high schoolers build satellites in national CubeSat competition

October 19, 2015

Today the White House announced the creation of a nationwide “CubeSat competition” that partners high school students with leading universities for the development and operation of small space satellites. The announcement was part of the festivities surrounding White House Astronomy Night on Oct. 19.

The CubeSat competition is being organized by Cornell University and the Museum of Science Fiction in Washington, D.C. Seven universities, including Arizona State University, will be participating partners. ASU’s participation will be led and organized by Jim Bell, director of the ASU Space Technology and Science (“NewSpace”) Initiative, and Ed Finn, director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. An artist's rendering of a cubesat orbiting the moon An artist's rendering of a shoebox-size CubeSat satellite orbiting the moon. Image by Sean Amidan/ASU/SpaceTREx Download Full Image

CubeSats are a new and revolutionary way of doing space science. Because of their small size (roughly the size of a shoebox) and low cost of construction and operation, CubeSats have the potential to democratize space science, providing opportunities for students and citizens to design and even operate missions of their own. CubeSats are typically carried into space as secondary payloads on larger, more traditional space missions.

“The CubeSat competition provides a great opportunity for students to get direct, hands-on experience in space science, engineering and exploration,” said Bell, an ASU professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “Part of our mission is to engage the community, especially young people, in the excitement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics like space exploration.”

“This contest invites a new generation of explorers, researchers and entrepreneurs to dream big,” said Finn, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media & Engineering and the Department of English. “Space has long been a canvas for great stories and grand ambitions, from the Apollo Program to ‘Star Trek,’ and the CubeSat competition gives winners the chance to see their ideas not just realized but launched into orbit.”

In the CubeSat competition, teams of high school students nationwide will propose inexpensive (less than $10,000) CubeSat missions to test technologies or conduct small-scale science experiments in space. Those proposals will be submitted by early 2016 and judged during the spring, with winners announced in summer 2016.  

The students will be encouraged, but not required, to reach out to participating universities, NASA Centers or aerospace companies for help with their proposal as they see fit. 

CubeSat competition judges will work with participating universities to match up their researchers’ expertise with the best-fit high school proposals (based on geography, research or technology synergies, etc.). It is expected that the universities will develop the technology and engineering solutions needed to make the high school students’ proposals functional and fit for flight.

University researchers and high school students will interact by teleconference, videoconference and email. Some universities might bring students to campus to participate in various aspects of the design and build work. In some cases, university teams may be able to carve off one component of the CubeSat system for the students to work on and then integrate it into the larger system later in the program.

The collaborative high school-university teams will apply for free NASA CubeSat launches through its CubeSat Launch Initiative.

For Bell, the benefits of the competition are both inspirational and real.

“The kinds of skills needed to plan, design, test, build and fly a spacecraft mission are directly translatable to a wide variety of careers in STEM and high-tech fields,” he said. “Employers out there want not only book-smart students for these careers, but students who have gotten their hands dirty  — literally or figuratively — building real-world mechanical, electrical or even software systems.

“Projects like this provide a great opportunity for practical, pragmatic teaching moments for budding engineers and scientists, as well as great foundational skills in teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving even for students who do not go directly into careers in those fields.”

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Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU’s new School of Molecular Sciences gears up for future societal challenges

October 20, 2015

With technical advances coming at a quickening pace and societal challenges becoming more complex, Arizona State University’s department of chemistry and biochemistry is transforming into the School of Molecular Sciences to better reflect its mission and gear up for the future.

The new school designation is in recognition of the changing roles of chemistry and biochemistry — fields that are developing rapidly and filling many new and critical uses. Ian Gould, President’s Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences (right, with graduate student Ara Austin in front of the new school's banner), said research at the new school is being refocused around contemporary societal themes, such as energy and sustainability. Photo by Rachel Nemeh/State Press Download Full Image

A celebration event for the new school’s launch will be held at 4 p.m. Oct. 21 in the atrium between the C and D wings of the Physical Sciences building on the Tempe campus.  

At the heart of the School of Molecular Sciences will be an expansion of the traditional disciplines of chemistry and biochemistry into a broader context of contemporary education and research.

For example, ASU’s faculty and students already use chemistry and biochemistry to understand and diagnose diseases and improve health, to develop new ways of converting and storing energy and to design and build new multifunctional materials, according to Daniel Buttry, director of the new school.

“Progress in each of these areas requires a deep understanding of molecular structure, properties and synthesis, but the research goals are trending away from problems in discipline-based chemistry and biochemistry and towards larger, mission-based societal problems,” Buttry said. “These societal ‘grand challenges’ often require faculty and students to work in larger, interdisciplinary groups that extend beyond the traditional boundaries of chemistry and biochemistry.”

According to Ian Gould, President’s Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, the work of faculty and students reflect the ways in which chemistry and biochemistry as disciplines are maturing and how future progress in these fields will be accomplished.

"The new school recognizes that when our students graduate and become independent scientists, they will be required to work on problems that cannot be solved by individual scientists, and to work in teams in which traditional disciplinary labels have little meaning,” Gould said. “We need to train our students to be successful in the post-disciplinary scientific world."

For these reasons, he said, research at the new School of Molecular Sciences is being refocused around contemporary societal themes, including:

• Energy and sustainability

• Medicine and health

• Materials nanoscience

• Geologic and biospheric sciences

• Structure, function and dynamics

• Frontiers of chemical measurement

• Fundamental molecular science

Dan Buttry, director of School of Molecular Sciences“Organizing around these themes will encourage new research initiatives and will focus our faculty and students on real-world challenges, where progress will only be made with an understanding of how macroscopic phenomena are controlled by processes at the molecular, atomic and electronic scales,” said Buttry (pictured left). “An example of this evolution is the change of research focus for several of our faculty from understanding the nitty-gritty of photosynthesis reaction pathways to applying that knowledge to design new energy sources based on light absorption.”

The new groups working in these areas will develop new seminar series, discussion groups and courses, and the reorganization will more accurately reflect the current intellectual endeavors of ASU faculty and students.

While the primary goal of the new school is to properly align research areas with faculty interest and contemporary problems, longer-term goals are to investigate the educational needs relevant into the 22nd century.

Gould said the school will offer potential undergraduate students new research opportunities in contemporary science, and new degree offerings are anticipated in the next few years that connect to emerging career opportunities. The school also will offer potential graduate students an immersive experience in interdisciplinary research teams throughout their graduate experience, and provide the training they need to be successful future independent scientists.

”Our overarching goal is to produce graduates with the cutting-edge skills needed to do impactful work in large interdisciplinary groups and who can contribute molecular-level thinking to address pressing societal needs,” Buttry said.

People gather in a brick courtyard for a celebration

Above and below: Faculty, students and staff gather for a celebration of the new School of Molecular Sciences on the Tempe campus Oct. 21. Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

A gruop of faculty pose for a picture

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications