Áilín Quinlan chats to one of the school teams designing and launching their own satellites for a Europe-wide high-tech space competition
An award-winning satellite has been designed, built and launched by a bunch of teenagers — who also managed to fit the whole thing into a Coke can. Three students spent months designing their sophisticated machine which boasts not only its own GPS to facilitate guided landing, but efficiently records temperature and air pressure.
Daniel Pogosyan, Adam Murphy and James O’Shaughnessy from Glanmire Community College in Cork have been chosen to represent their county in a nationwide space project in which teams of second-level students are competing to design, build and test the best mini-satellite or CanSat which can fit into a soft drinks can.
Each team has to fit all the major subsystems found in a real satellite into their CanSat — including power, sensors and communications equipment — and also provide a parachute to ensure the souped-up can has a gentle landing!
“Our satellite is in a 330ml can filled with circuitry,” explained team programmer Daniel Pogosyan (17), who said he had thoroughly enjoyed the project.
“It was originally a Coke can but we re-formed it so as to fit the circuitry into it.
“The hardest part of the work was calibrating the thermostat,” said the talented teen — Daniel is in the throes of programming a GPS system for the can, so that “when it lands it will do so in our selected location and we’ll be able to find it easily.”
His favourite part of the project, he says, was programming the satellite.
“I learned a lot about engineering from doing this project, and engineering will probably be one of my college choices. I like working with logic and engineering, so I really enjoyed the whole thing.
“We came up against problems but we always found the solution. I also learned a lot about programming and worked out how to use an Excel sheet in Microsoft Office.
“We also had to learn communication and presentation skills.
“I learned an awful lot I didn’t know about how electrical components work so it was a great learning experience overall,” said the teenager. They did get expert support and advice — along with the two other members of the group, Daniel attended regular two-hour mentoring and teaching sessions at Cork Institute of Technology.
These classes equipped the three youths with the sophisticated skills required to cope with this very demanding project.
But it wasn’t all painstaking high-tech work — the boys also re-painted the can in the Cork colours and decorated it with a colourful space-themed logo on a sticker specially designed by first-year students at the school.
“CanSat is a unique space project that simulates a real satellite which fits into the volume of a soft drinks can,” explained Dr Eamon Connolly, Electrical and Electronic Engineering Promotion Officer of the Cork Technology Network or CEIA, one of the organising bodies involved in the space competition.
“Students launch their own satellite and get first-hand practical experience of a real space project.”
The team from Glanmire Community College joined St Brogan’s in Bandon and Coláiste an Chraoibhín from Fermoy in competing for a place at tomorrow’s CanSat national final.
Each satellite had to be able to measure the air pressure and air temperature after release and during descent. Its young designers then had to display the data collected in a graph and present their individual results to the judging panel.
The successful Glanmire trio will join six other award-winning teams from around the country to compete in the final of the European Space Agency competition in Birr Castle, Co Offaly, tomorrow.
The group’s maths and physics teacher William Horgan, who is also a qualified engineer, oversaw the project.
He said the boys learned a range of challenging new skills under the guidance of a specially-chosen mentor who was allocated to them as part of the project’s links with Cork Institutes of Technology — a final-year engineering student at the Institute.
As part of the project, each second-level school team linked up with a third-level partner institute — these included Cork Institute of Technology, Dublin Institute of Technology, Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology and Limerick Institute of Technology.
“They had to develop computer programming skills and a range of technical skills because they had to learn how to actually build the structure required to house the circuitry and fit inside the Coke can,” Mr Horgan explained.
“On top of the technical skills they had to learn how to give presentations,” he said, adding that within just four months of beginning the project the boys had to have the satellite ready for launching on its primary mission and ensure it was capable of measuring temperature and pressure.
“It was launched in CIT for the first time in mid-March and worked very well,” said Mr Horgan. He adds that the three students are currently further refining the can’s GPS system to enable them to achieve a guided landing.
“The big benefit for the students is that they’re developing a wide range of STEM skills — programming, electronic engineering, circuitry.
“In terms of third-level engineering courses and employment further down the track these are very desirable skills,” he added.
Tomorrow the Glanmire team will join students from Dunmore Community School, Galway St Josephs College, Borrisoleigh, Co Tipperary, Coláiste Chiaráin, Co Limerick, Confey College, Kildare, Belvedere College, Dublin and Marist College Athlone to compete at the national final in a bid to represent Ireland at the European Final in June.
The competition is a joint collaboration between European Space Education Resource Office Ireland (ESERO), the CEIA and is co-funded by the European Space Agency and Science Foundation Ireland Discover, the education and outreach programme managed by Science Foundation Ireland.
Career trajectory of a previous CanSat winner
Winning the CanSat competition not only meant getting an award — it was also the catalyst for 2014 winner Chris Kelly to re-consider his college choices and even set up a business.
Now a first-year computer engineering student at the University of Limerick, the 19-year-old was a member of a group of fifth-year pupils at Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick, who won the 2014 competition.
“Up to then I’d been thinking of studying maths-related subjects in college, but after participating in the CanSat competition I ended up opting for computer engineering,” recalls the teenager, who says the CanSat project was the catalyst for his decision in recent months to found a tech company in conjunction with a group of college friends.
“The skills I learned for the Can Sat project — computer programming, electronics, mechanics, as well as project planning and team skills like communication and presentation — were crucial to the decision to set up my start-up company Talamh Innovations,” says the teenager, whose company not only designs drones to monitor crop growth in agriculture, but also produces a tracking system for hospital resources in collaboration with the Peri-Operative Care team at University Hospital Limerick.
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