PROVO — Before year’s end, a spacecraft is slated to launch from Mojave, California.
In part, one could say that it’s to take selfies.
For the last five years, students at the BYU College of Engineering have been dreaming up, designing and building two tiny satellites. And after a two-year delay in the launch of NASA’s ELaNa 20 mission, the cube-like modules are finally ready to head to space.
The “CubeSats” have cameras attached to each of their six sides and are designed to take photos of other satellites, giving NASA a cheap method of visually examining the exteriors of spacecraft.
“The idea is you carry up one of these sort of selfie cameras,” said David Long, an engineering professor at BYU, “and when you needed to get a picture of your spacecraft — it is very inexpensive; it’s disposable — you kind of toss it out the window, conceptually, you know, you just deploy it, and it takes pictures of your main spacecraft. And then it just drifts off into space.”
For its test flight, the launcher will enter orbit and push CubeSats into space.
The cameras will start shooting immediately, taking a few pictures from each angle. Around 30 minutes later, the spacecraft will start transmitting data to the ground site on BYU’s campus.
Receiving the images will take around six weeks, Long said, as the satellites have to be orbiting over Utah for the process to work.
If possible, the cameras will be programmed to continue shooting while drifting in orbit, but their main job is to capture stills right after being released.
Assessing exterior damage to other satellites is the primary use of BYU’s CubeSats.
“It’s not a major issue,” said Long, who previously worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s just kind of one of those things where we often wonder, ‘Did an antenna deploy correctly?’ Did this happen, did that happen the way it’s supposed to? It’s a pretty rare event, thank goodness. But it would be nice to know these kinds of things.”
The pair of identical spacecraft are the first that BYU students have engineered from beginning to end, according to Long.
“This is the first time that we’ve designed and built the spacecraft ourselves,” he said. “It is entirely a BYU project. So, yeah, we’ve done everything.”
Long is an adviser for the project and said that students — dozens of them — were given primary stewardship over the work, and they provided the thrust needed to get it off the ground.
The students grappled with how to build satellites robust enough to function in space from commercial parts, how to set up a ground station to receive data and how to fit the needed technology into a small, 10-centimeter frame.
“The biggest challenge we had is we had to pack an awful lot of electronics (into) little, little, tiny 10-centimeter cubes,” Long said. “So you can imagine, we had like six cameras, and that’s like six cellphones … and so that was the biggest challenge was packing it all together in a small cube, so it’s very dense. There is a lot of cabling inside it.”
NASA’s intent with the collaboration, at least in part, was to train the next generation of engineers and other STEM students “how to work the NASA way.”
The team of students received two opportunities. The first was a $200,000 grant under NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Project that helped them pay for materials and student labor.
The second was securing their satellites a spot on a Virgin Orbit launcher, one that NASA had stipulated in a grant to Virgin Orbit be used to release these educational CubeSats.
The ELaNa 20 mission will send spacecraft from several other colleges into orbit as well, each with a different mission.
BYU’s CubeSats cost less than $25,000 each to make, “which is cheap,” Long said. He believes that the satellites could potentially be sold commercially for around $15,000.
The relatively low cost of these satellites is alluring for space programs, because they will eventually cease functioning and then burn up in the atmosphere.
During their first year of work, the students prepared their proposal to NASA; after that, they designed and built the spacecraft, and the last two years have been “mostly waiting,” Long said.
Under NASA mandate, the project is intended for undergraduate students, and graduates are not allowed to work on the spacecraft.
“We used an inexperienced team … undergraduate students,” Long said. “And although the faculty members, we knew what we were doing, we wanted the students to learn. So we let them make a few mistakes along the way, not too many, but of course we promptly corrected (them).”
Because of the project’s extended timeline and the stipulation that only undergraduates work on it, BYU’s research team has cycled through a number of students who have since graduated, including the project’s progenitor, Patrick Walton.
In 2015, when the project started, Walton was a junior mechanical engineering student who had an interest in startup companies and wanted more space activities at BYU.
“Eventually, (I) realized that I didn’t have to become a billionaire to try to start a space company and came up with the idea for a VR camera in space,” he said.
The project was his brainchild.
While certain plans and design features have changed over the years, his initial vision still holds, and his multi-camera satellites will soon be orbiting Earth.
“It’s really gratifying,” he said. “Like I said, I came to campus wishing there were student space activities, and now there are a lot ... The Rocketry Club has, like, tons of students building rockets of all sizes. The Spacecraft Club is continuing to make satellites.”
Five years later, with his project about to launch, Walton is a graduate student majoring in electrical engineering. He no longer works on the project but is excited for the launch and plans to be with the team when they start receiving data.
The current project lead, Ben Francis, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, joined the project in 2019 and took over as team lead earlier this year.
He will be one of the few students who gets to see the project come to fruition — standing on the backs of more than 50 other undergraduates who worked on the spacecraft.
“The CubeSats were pretty much built when I joined the project, but my main focus has been on the radio and ground station,” he said. “And so we’ve been able to make some good progress and great improvements on our ground station in those two years.”
Finishing the work that so many others have contributed to can be a daunting proposition, Francis said, but the final result will, hopefully, be a success.
“When launch occurs, it will be super exciting, but that’s when my team kicks in,” he said. “And it’ll be stressful until we receive that first signal, but the second that the data comes in, then it’ll just be elation. And everyone’s going to go crazy; we’ll be so excited.”