It's a new kind of space race, 21st century style.
More than 100 students from five Irvine high schools and a dozen more from a local middle school are on a mission named Irvine01, a yearlong collaboration to engineer, launch and place an operational nanosatellite in orbit. The Irvine students would be the first high schoolers in the country to accomplish it.
The goal is to send a 4-by-4-inch device known as a CubeSat into low Earth orbit for the first in a series of missions. It is designed to carry a camera and a solar panel propulsion system and collect data such as temperatures and the satellite's speed, direction, location and altitude.
The launch is planned for March 2017.
"It's a very ambitious project," said Tinh Tran, 41, a teacher in University High School's STEM program, or science, technology, engineering and math. "This usually is done at the university or corporate level, so this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity."
Tran and fellow teachers from Beckman, Irvine, Northwood and Woodbridge high schools developed curriculum for teams of 20 to 25 students from each school to handle the CubeSat mission.
Students from Irvine's new Portola High School will be brought into the program when the campus opens in the fall. Students from Rancho San Joaquin Middle School are involved in the project as a STEM feeder program.
"We get our shot at making history," Tran said. "To us, it's like the moon shot of STEM education in this community. It's really exciting to try to be the first group to launch an operational CubeSat."
"I don't know if that puts a lot of pressure on us, but hoping to be the first successful high school here is a huge deal," Hala Ozgur, a sophomore member of the Irvine High team, said during the program's kickoff event Tuesday night at The Cove at UC Irvine. "That just makes us put that much more effort in, hoping it will turn out great."
Unlike the space race of the Cold War era, collaboration has replaced competition in space exploration. With moon landings and shuttle missions in the history books, the International Space Station and companies such as SpaceX are driving the communal future of orbital experimentation and commerce.
Several leading tech companies and science programs at universities including MIT, Brown, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Montana State are supporting the high school effort with mentoring and equipment. For example, the camera being sent up on Irvine01 is provided by Cal Poly. Faculty members at the colleges are serving as guest speakers in Skype sessions and providing other resources.
Organizers of the Irvine program are in discussions with a company in Russia regarding the launch.
A $150,000 grant from the Irvine Public Schools Foundation provided the seed money to begin a multiyear financial commitment.
The plan is for three years of missions, with a goal of rolling forward in perpetuity, depending on continued funding and other support.
"This is exactly what our foundation is about, looking for hands-on opportunities for our students to gain real-world experiences, so that's why we jumped onboard," said foundation President and Chief Executive Neda Eaton.
The Irvine CubeSat program is the idea of Brent Freeze and Kain Sosa, neighbors in Irvine's Quail Hill subdivision who had an interest in supporting education beyond the fact that both have children headed for Irvine high schools.
Freeze is the founder of Sorlox Corp., an Irvine company that develops fusion power for defense contractors. He said his company was having a hard time recruiting people with the required specialized science backgrounds and recognized that developing talent could start with STEM programs in local high schools.
"There's so many smart students graduating from here that go to local colleges," Freeze said. "This program has taken off and filled a void like nothing I've ever seen before. It's just incredible how much excitement and energy there is for this."
He and Sosa, a data scientist who wanted to boost participation of girls and minorities in STEM programs, decided to form the CubeSat program in October and quickly recruited unofficial support from NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Ecuadorian Civilian Space Agency. Like-minded companies Accion Systems, Tyvak and Innovative Space Logistics signed on with corporate contributions.
Students applied for positions on each of the school teams. Each team has a specific responsibility in the mission, including avionics, power, propulsion, prime (preparation logistics) and communication.
"We decided to do things a little bit different than other CubeSat programs because they didn't make it into operational orbit," Freeze said.
He said the approach is modeled after NASA's launch projects, which use teams from different places working together.
"It's really great to come together as not only a community but also as a unified district, like the name, Irvine Unified School District," said Parker Haw, a sophomore member of the Woodbridge team.
Organizers hope to have a lot of STEM students in early high school and the middle school feeder program participate so as older students graduate, many participants with experience will be returning.
"It's a totally different experience, and I think that's really neat because it shows the world and our community that different high schools can work together to produce a great end product," Hala said.