Astronauts embark on spacewalks, lasting between five to eight hours, when the outside of their spacecraft may need repairs or as experiments are conducted, according to NASA’s website. The risks associated with spacewalks and other outer space activities can be minimized thanks to a new type of satellite created by students in BYU’s College of Engineering.
The satellite project was spearheaded by David Long, a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at BYU, who previously worked for NASA JPL and designed radar systems for spacecraft.
The project, termed Passive Inspection CubeSats or PICS, began in 2016 when an undergraduate student suggested a system engineering class be created so small satellites could be studied. Due to Long’s connections, the group was able to propose and get approval from NASA, along with $200,000 for funding, to launch the satellites as a part of the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative.
The money was spent in creating two small cube satellites, 10 cm in length on each side with cameras on all 6 faces. The goal was to create a small satellite that could be launched into space to take photos and videos. The satellites were designed to take pictures of their own deployment, allowing for the possibility of inspecting another spacecraft, rather than employing on dangerous spacewalks.
A team of BYU undergraduate students worked for several semesters to iron out the process of constructing such a device. Patrick Walton, now a BYU Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering student, was part of the original group that proposed the satellite idea to NASA.
“The reason NASA funded it was because we pitched it as this opportunity to collect data about the outside of a spacecraft, which there usually aren’t opportunities for unless you rendezvous with another spacecraft.” Walton said.
Walton described the difficulties that came with trying to think beforehand about how they would design the device. Ultimately, they found a structure and parts that worked. Long said the students created a unique mechanical design they were able to put together.
“I like working with the students and having them do it. I like to see the students succeed. That’s one of the reasons why I say it’s their design,” Long said. “I guided them, I helped them, but I didn’t do the design work, they did.”
Being a part of the process from start to finish was a unique experience for Walton who has always wanted to start a company that builds spacecraft. “I’ve gotten to see the project from idea almost to flight,” Walton said. “I think that’s been really helpful already in terms of knowing how to go forward in building products in space.”
The satellites will be launched aboard a rocket built by Virgin Orbit. That rocket is carried by a 747 airplane over the ocean where it is released and ignited, carrying the satellites into space. Afterwards, a spring-loaded adapter will then open a door and the satellites will fly out. According to Long, the most important part of the mission will occur in the first minute after it is discharged from the launch vehicle. As soon as the spacecraft is released, it quickly boots up and starts taking pictures.
Walton described the satellites as being just like selfie cameras that you toss out the hatch and let float away while they transmit pictures back to the ground. “Part of our pitch was that we literally cannot maneuver it at all, so you have nothing to worry from us,” Walton said. “We are as harmless as throwing a baseball.”
Antennae’s will be ready as the spacecraft passes overhead to receive the data to transmit the images; the process takes about six weeks. “The biggest issue is getting the data down to the ground,” Long said. “We can only send the data down at a very slow rate.” After a few years, the satellite will slow down in the atmosphere and burn up.
BYU started a spacecraft club for interested students to gain training and education. Long said the plan is to have students continue the project with the creation of more advanced spacecraft. “We have a plan for PICS 2, 3, and 4 … to expand how a spacecraft works so we can have a whole sequence of them,” Long said. “Hopefully NASA, the next time they have an opportunity, will jump on board.”