NASA High School Interns Design a STEVE Satellite

Guest post by Anna MacLennan

In the spring of 2019, after months of nervous waiting, I was elated to find out that I’d been accepted to NASA’s STEM Enhancement in Earth Science (SEES) High School Internship Program, a highly competitive summer internship for high school juniors and seniors which is run through a collaboration of NASA, UT Austin, Texas Space Grant, and the Center for Space Research. 

The following summer, I flew to Texas to work with a NASA mentor, attend lectures and workshops led by NASA faculty, and take part in activities like rocket building, cave exploring, and even indoor skydiving.

Seven high school students stand smiling with their arms folded behind their mentor, who is seated at a desk. On the desk is a tablet, along with white cups, a laptop, a globe, and a prototype that looks like a large red LEGO block.

The Earth From Space Aerospace Engineering team and Dr. Wallace Fowler with their LEGOsat prototype

I was on the Earth From Space Aerospace Engineering team along with six other students from all over the country. Under the mentorship of Dr. Wallace Fowler, my team and I designed a satellite for Low Earth Orbit (2,000 km above the Earth or less) that could carry miniature experiments. Following its completion, we individually designed experiments to be flown aboard our satellite. 

At first, I wasn’t sure what I should focus my experiment on, but after watching footage of the northern lights taken from the International Space Station, I started focusing my research on auroras. I’ve dreamed of seeing the northern or southern lights in person for as long as I can remember, so it felt natural to take the opportunity to learn more about them.

After a few hours of literature research, I stumbled across an article about STEVE, or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. STEVE is a recently discovered type of aurora that occurs at lower latitudes than the northern or southern lights. Rather than the horizontal green waves typical of the northern or southern lights, STEVE appears as a purple line with a green picket fence structure and usually lasts between 20-60 minutes. Since it’s so new, there are still a multitude of things scientists don’t know about how it forms. 

STEVE and the Milky Way at Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada. Image courtesy of Krista Trinder

STEVE and the Milky Way at Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada. Image courtesy of Krista Trinder

I scoured the internet for everything I could find about STEVE—which, due to the relative newness of STEVE’s discovery, wasn’t much—and in the next work session with my team, I proposed an experiment that would capture data about when, where, and how STEVE forms.

The other interns on the Earth from Space team were as fascinated by STEVE as I was, so we chose my STEVE experiment as one of the four experiment proposals we would pursue as our final presentation. 

In order to answer some of my many questions about STEVE, I reached out to Dr. Liz MacDonald, Aurorasaurus founder, who wrote the first scientific paper about STEVE. She emailed me back the very next morning and gave me further learning resources, offered invaluable advice, and provided clearly-explained answers to my questions. I also received advice from Dr. Megan Gillies, an auroral instrumentation specialist at the University of Calgary.

My final STEVE experiment was designed to image STEVE in both the visible and near-infrared spectra. By imaging in visible wavelengths, it could be determined if STEVE has a longitudinal preference–that is, whether it appears evenly on all east/west divisions of the Earth or if it tends to form more often over land masses or certain continents. Imaging STEVE in the near-infrared would help determine if its broadband emission extends beyond the visible range.

From day one of the remote work to the day of final presentations, I learned an incredible amount through the NASA SEES internship program. The opportunity to design my own experiment and work with a team to design a satellite was something I never envisioned myself doing as a high school student. 

Seven high schoolers in business attire and a middle-aged man stand beside a poster titled LEGOSat.

The 2019 Earth From Space Aerospace Engineering team stands with Dr. Wallace Fowler beside their project poster

However, the most rewarding aspect of the program was easily the people; the opportunity to connect with students from all different backgrounds over a mutual love of STEM and outer space was an experience I’ll never forget. My love for aerospace and Earth science is fueled more now than ever before and I’m so excited to learn more about it in the future.

My team’s final satellite was called LEGOsat and you can watch our final presentation here.

Special thanks to Margaret Baguio and all other NASA SEES, UT Austin, Texas Space Grant, and CSR faculty and staff for making this experience possible, to Dr. Wallace Fowler for his invaluable advice, to Dr. Liz MacDonald and Dr. Megan Gillies for all of their time and help, and to my fellow aerospace engineering interns: Vinay Agrawal, Kayla Blalack, John Clemmons, Audrey Safir, Shivani Sahni, and Vibhor Srivastava for being such a supportive, creative, and amazing team to work with.

About Anna:

Anna MacLennan is a high school junior from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is incredibly passionate about STEM, gender equality, and outreach work. She is honored to spread her love of aerospace through her position as a Back to Space student ambassador. Anna was also a 2018 Education First Global Citizen Scholar. In her spare time, Anna enjoys playing with her dog and watching the stars. You can read Anna’s blog post about STEM outreach here and watch her interview with Apollo astronaut Al Worden here.

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