Student interns experiment with satellite building

Earlier this month, a full-scale model of the ninth Lincoln Experimental Satellite (LES-9) was hung from the ceiling of Lincoln Laboratory's main lobby in commemoration of the satellite’s continuing service and the Laboratory's 60th anniversary.

Minuteman Tech interns and LES-9 modelInterns from Minuteman Career and Technical High School stand underneath their LES-9 model, while Laboratory mentors view the satellite from the second floor.


This model was built by interns from Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, as a way to practice real-world engineering skills. The students worked throughout the school year in an oscillating schedule, one week of classes followed by one week in the lab, to plan and build an LES-9 model. The juniors working on this project also collaborated with other classes at Minuteman Tech—seniors in the welding shop and freshmen in the carpentry shop. All parties contributed to the design logistics and building the satellite.

Patrick McColl, robotics and pre-engineering instructor at Minuteman Tech, coordinated this project and guided the students throughout the process. He says, "Building this model was excellent for the kids. They had the opportunity to work for a customer, build to specifications, and work toward a deliverable." Ultimately, the students did not meet the delivery date, but they learned a lot about how to work within a time frame.

Al Richard and Don MacLellan were two of many Laboratory engineers who helped build the original LES-9. With John Kangas, they served as the primary Laboratory mentors for the interns. Richard, who worked on the original LES-9 project for 40 years as an engineer and ground-station manager, says, "It was a big job for these students to add to their schedule. They worked a lot." Many interns had to work after school, at night, and on weekends in order to find enough time for the project. Richard added, "I helped students at the school on one Saturday from eight in the morning to eight at night. We only left then because the school security had to lock up!" He says he was amazed at the long hours these students worked in order to accomplish their goal. McColl adds, "The people at the Laboratory who stepped in to finish the project were fantastic. I would love to do this type of collaboration again."

The students approached this project in the same manner as a Lincoln Laboratory group. They divided themselves into job groups, each group being responsible for a certain part of the satellite. This project was a great chance for the students to work cooperatively on pieces that fit together. McColl says, "At Lincoln Laboratory, simultaneously working on a big project in separate parts may be a regular occurrence, but for students, it was a first."

To prepare for the build process, the students asked for the original CAD (computer-aided design) drawings. This request amused Richard. "There wasn't any such thing a CAD drawing 40 years ago when we made the original satellite!" The students persevered and built the satellite in phases, ultimately with the help of 40 people at the Laboratory. Richard notes, "There were a lot of details that the students did not have time for since they had to fit it in the time frame of a school year."

LES-9 in 1975LES-9 in East High Bay in 1975.

The real LES-9 was built 35 years ago and continues to be a functional satellite. LES-8 and LES-9 were launched by a Titan-IIIC on March 14, 1976, and were built to demonstrate high reliability, survivability, and strategic communications technologies. They were designed to operate in coplanar, inclined, circular, geosynchronous orbits and to communicate with each other via crosslinks at extremely high frequency, and with terminals operating on or near the surface of the earth at both extremely high frequency and ultrahigh frequency. Extensive pre-launch testing was conducted because of the complex transmission and reception for satellite links providing antijam capability.

In mid-June, at the end of the school year, the project was completed. When asked if the satellite model should be displayed, MacLellan, the program manager for the LES-9 project in the 1970s, responded, "Hang it up! It's beautiful! Their model looks better than the real item!" As a result, throughout most of the year, the 10-foot-long model can be seen in the main lobby of Lincoln Laboratory.


See the related time-lapse video of the installation of the LES-9 model and the Beaverworks UAV here.

Posted July 2011


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