This Middle-Schooler Can Use STK Better Than You

...and the project he’s a part of was selected for the 12th round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI).

So, who is this STK ace? Ben Cohen is a 2021 graduate from Tilden Middle School in North Bethesda, Maryland. He’s on a team of seventh through 11th graders working in different subgroups to support SilverSat. This CLSI CubeSat mission’s primary objective is to “provide science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for secondary and elementary school students in the greater Silver Spring, Maryland area with innovative, hands-on, and collaborative opportunities to teach and inspire.” The CLSI CubeSat mission aims to provide a “technological demonstration using social media to send information directly from a satellite to its users and the interested public.” They do this by taking photos of Earth from orbit and then uploading those photos to Twitter.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben and one of the program mentors and president, Dave Copeland, about the SilverSat mission.

It didn’t take long for Ben to mention that he has a Saturn V rocket model in his basement; like many of us when we were his age, Ben wants to be a rocket scientist. The difference between Ben and most of the middle school versions of us is that he is already a rocket scientist, and not just because he launched a model rocket with parental supervision.

Ben’s main role is serving on the avionics team for SilverSat. He ensures that the avionics board effectively controls the CubeSat during its mission. Ben was the primary resource for performing line-of-sight studies using Systems Tool Kit (STK) during the mission planning phase. He used STK to compute uplink and downlink intervals for the ground stations that the CubeSat will rely on, and analyzed lighting conditions using the satellite’s attitude and the 3D graphics of STK. As someone who spends a lot of time working with STK, I can confirm anecdotally that Ben can use it at least as well as many adults.

The SilverSat team is deep into the preliminary design phase of the mission, and their second prototype is almost complete. In their testing phase they used a drone to test their onboard optical sensor, and they verified that their system can upload images to Twitter. Once the second prototype is finished, they’ll spend the next academic year developing the full flight profile. To help achieve this goal, Ben will use STK to compute quantitative lighting values on each face of the satellite and its solar panels. He also told me that he’ll be looking into some programming with STK.

One of Dave’s favorite parts of the SilverSat program is the bevy of learning opportunities for both students and mentors. Dave is also impressed by the number of students the program will have involved over its life. He told me that by the time the mission launches, the first class to have gone through the program will be in college. Younger students are recruited to backfill as each class in the program gets older, creating a great collaborative environment and the opportunity for the older students to teach the younger students.

The last thing I asked Ben for was some feedback on STK. He told me that he really likes that the program not only provides accurate data, but that it includes visualization to help show what is really going on. He also told me that he appreciates that STK can run on less powerful computers than many video games. If Ben could give STK newcomers one recommendation, it would be to “just play around” and explore the software.

Hopefully Ben and Dave share what they’ve learned about STK to help the mission planning team create the rest of the profile!


Systems Tool Kit (STK)

The most important thing on your desktop.