Engineer a Satellite


Activity Source: 

NASA. Adapted with permission.

Is the ozone hole getting smaller? How much rain is in the cloud of a hurricane? How much sea ice is melting in the Arctic? For over 50 years, NASA scientists have been asking questions and collecting data from space-based satellites to study Earth’s changing environment. Engineers and scientists are essential partners in this process. From the scientists’ questions, engineers help design instruments to get the measurements needed to help answer these questions.

Just as you can use data from a thermometer, barometer, and a hygrometer to get a clearer picture of the weather, scientists use a variety of instruments to get the big picture of our Earth system. Since one satellite can only carry a few of these instruments, multiple satellites are used to collect data over the entire globe every day.

In this activity, you will select the scientific instruments for your satellite, calculate the power requirements for all the subsystems, and construct a scale model of your very own Earth observing satellite. Note to teachers: See the full activity online.*


  • Instrument Cards and Satellite Subsystems Description*
  • Satellite Engineering Worksheet (one per student)*
  • 2 cocktail drink straws (narrow straw about 3 mm in diameter)
  • 3 sequins
  • 2 buttons (1.5 - 2 cm)
  • 5 beads: red, green, blue, UV sensitive, and a triangle bead
  • 15 cm square foam sheet (from a disposable plate, meat tray, or craft foam sheets)
  • A dozen glue dots (or cubes can be pre-assembled with hot glue)
  • 12 Interlocking Gram Centimeter Cubes available at (Or glue small sheets of cardboard together to a thickness of about 2 cm. Cut and glue to the size needed for your model.)


  1. Go online to the activity web site ( and learn about the electromagnetic spectrum and Earth observing satellites. This site also includes additional instructions and information for your teacher and a Satellite Engineering Worksheet.
  2. Select up to three instruments for your satellite.
  3. Select up to three instruments for your satellite.
  4. Determine the required capacity of the battery and size of solar array.
  5. Construct a scale model.

* Full activity at