Sky’s the limit for Irvine high schoolers as they seek to send a satellite into orbit

Talk about shooting for the moon: The countdown is on for Irvine high school students to build and launch a mini satellite that will orbit Earth a year from now.

If successful, the ambitious program dubbed IRVINE01 could mark the first time American high school students put an operational satellite into orbit.

And the launch could take place from a site in Russia, giving it an international flavor.

Called a CubeSat, the satellite will be about the size of a milk carton cut in half and weigh less than 3 pounds. Plans call for a low orbit at about 350 miles, while students run flight experiments and photograph the moon.

Being involved in IRVINE01, said University High freshman Lily Litvak, is light years beyond the stodgy work of researching the planets and writing a report.

“It’s quite a leap to go from a very structured school project that does not go into depth to a project that is student-led,” the 14-year-old said.

The CubeSat program is the brainchild of two Irvine dads who want to further the interest of local youth in careers focused on the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The hope is that this won’t be a one-shot deal, but a sustainable project that can be used to develop a curriculum so students around Orange County can replicate it.

Irvine Public Schools Foundation provided $150,000 in seed money to get the launch off the ground and hopes to raise an estimated $500,000 in corporate donations to expand the program.

It’s not unusual for high school students to launch rockets or build packages that are carried into the atmosphere by balloons, said Pamela Clark, director of the CubeSat Development Lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

But, said Clark, who is lending her support to IRVINE01, “this one is a step further up.”

Although NASA has a program to engage high school and college students in the development and launch of nanosatellites, the space agency is not affiliated with the Irvine CubeSat project.

Clark and fellow JPL scientist Charles Norton, a leading name in the development of small satellites for scientific research, are providing advice and assistance to the Irvine students on their own time.

Student-led satellite projects are more typical of colleges and universities, which have launched numerous CubeSats over the past decade.

Two high schools on the East Coast – one of them in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – failed at completing similar missions. With other high schools gearing up their own launches, the race is on to be the first to succeed.

The Irvine project also stands out for the collaboration involved: Teams of students were drawn from the school district’s five high schools, not just one school. Each school’s team has a distinct role in the mission, and it all has to mesh at the end.

A sixth team will join in the fall when Portola High opens.

And it is hoped that the IRVINE01 project will spark greater interest in science and engineering among girls, whose numbers tend to lag in those fields.

Litvak is practicing on filling out the forms that will be needed to get a launch permit in Russia by working with two schoolmates on NASA launch permit forms.

“I have never done a project of this magnitude,” said Litvak, “so I was very nervous in applying.”

The learning process is what matters most to Clark, who likened this chance to test how things work by trial and error to the way the U.S. space program developed in the 1960s, a period of its greatest rate of success and failure.

“Whether it works or not, it’s a great learning opportunity,” she said of the Irvine project. “And that’s the way it should be. That’s what science is.”


For all its high-flying trajectory, IRVINE01 grew out of the most down-to-earth circumstance: a chance conversation on a sidewalk in an Irvine neighborhood.

Brent Freeze happened to be unplugging his hybrid car one morning last October when Kain Sosa, who lives 10 doors away, walked past with his dog.

Both men are in their 40s. Freeze heads the Irvine company Sorlox Corp., an engineering firm that focuses on sustainable-energy innovation. Sosa, founder of the business analytics firm Bilingual Interactive, is an expert in data technology and psycholinguistics.

Sosa, the father of two boys 13 and 10, is known for his elaborate Halloween and Christmas displays; Freeze, who has a toddler and a preschooler, loves astronomy and owns what Sosa described as “the biggest telescope on the block.”

Freeze had been pondering how to nurture more local talent from a young age in STEM career fields. After reading about NASA’s mini-satellite educational program, he got the idea to engage Irvine high schoolers in a CubeSat launch. He asked Sosa if he knew of any teachers to approach.

“It sounded kind of crazy,” Sosa said of his initial reaction. “But I liked the fact it sounded kind of crazy.”

Both men have a lot of connections in their fields, but it was Sosa’s wife, Isis, a former Univision news reporter, anchor and producer turned homemaker and PTA mom, who put the two dads on the path that led to Irvine Public Schools Foundation and University High instructor Tinh Tran.

Tran, who teaches science and engineering classes, had previously received an innovative teaching grant from the foundation to work with students on the programming of a satellite’s sensors.

“This is exactly what I envisioned two years ago when I applied for the grant,” Tran said. “I learned it’s difficult to actually launch a satellite into space.”

But at first glance of the initial email from Freeze, Tran thought it was spam.

“I was so close to deleting it. I’m sure glad I didn’t.”

Tran recruited teachers from the other high schools – Beckman, Irvine, Northwood and Woodbridge – as Freeze and Sosa moved quickly to bring onboard businesses and institutions such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly’s CubeSat program dates to 1999 and will relay the communications from the Irvine satellite once it is in orbit.

Like Clark at JPL, Tran sees the hands-on experience as the greatest benefit to students and a chance to close the skills gap in the changing job market.

“In the real world, people don’t complete worksheets – they work on projects. Students will get this real-life application of what it is to do real work.”


For the Irvine Public Schools Foundation, $150,000 is a “significant” investment, said Neda Eaton, CEO and president of the 20-year-old organization. The foundation’s funding sources are individuals, local businesses and corporations.

“It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that’s how I look at it,” Eaton said.

The foundation also provides school enrichment programs in the arts, and Eaton sees opportunity for students in areas outside of science, such as graphic arts and music, to make contributions to IRVINE01 that will include designing a logo and creating the music to be played during the launch.

Whatever their role, the students involved in making the satellite a reality are experiencing an out-of-this-world feeling.

Hala Ozgur, 15, is a sophomore at Irvine High. She’s a member of her school’s newspaper staff and president of the Paper Hearts school club that writes letters to those in need. And she always loved biology but hadn’t explored other areas of science.

Her school is tasked with propulsion for the satellite.

“I’m looking forward to where this will take me and where it will take Irvine,” Ozgur said.

Might she end up in space someday?

“We’ll see. With this, the sky’s not the limit.”

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