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PICs Update: CubeSats go seen but unheard

Plane and rocket.jpg

The population of Earth’s orbit grew ten satellites larger Sunday, Jan. 17., when NASA’s Virgin Orbit launch vehicle released ten student-built satellites into space. Two of them - the Passive Inspection Cubesats (PICs) - came from Dr. David Long and his team of students. The PICs entered Earth’s orbit successfully, and the team is now pursuing the next steps.

“Needless to say, we’re really excited that our work made it to space and survived launch,” said Patrick Walton, the student who initiated the PICs project (learn more about Walton here).

NASA shared with the team leaders a video that confirmed the PICs successful deployment, evidenced by a flash from PIC-A or PIC-B’s cameras. Eight satellites from other universities rode on the launch vehicle as well.

Like broke college students piling into an eleven-passenger Uber and splitting the fee, these student-built satellites flew into space at a discount by piling onto the Virgin Orbit vehicle. But they were in for a wild Uber-esque ride. Not only do normal Ubers stay on the ground for transit; they also have a reputation for arriving at their destinations in one piece.

Virgin Orbit had no such history: every previous model had failed before completing the mission. NASA helped cover the launch so they could test their model, and universities paid for the risky endeavor at a discount. The PICs had a 50% chance of getting to orbit.

It could go terribly, said Dr. Long. “You could keel over with a heart attack five minutes from now, but that shouldn’t stop you from living your life and making decisions.”

So out went the PICs. He and Walton described their journey as so:

The ten satellites loaded into Virgin Orbit’s 30-ton launch vehicle. The rocket was strapped to a Boeing 747, which carried it from Mojave Air and Space Port to the Pacific Ocean.

As it passed over the ocean, it separated from the airplane and soared into orbit at 15,000 miles per hour, reaching the top of orbit while immersed in Earth’s shadow.

Pop. A hatch opened in the launch vehicle and released the satellites like a 30-ton cosmic Pez dispenser.

Because Earth’s shadow eclipsed the rocket and her cargo, NASA’s video screens showed only blackness. Then, “a small, brief flash of light illuminates the rocket in the frame,” Walton said. PIC-A and PIC-B had successfully deployed, booted up, and taken their first pictures of space. They even videotaped their own deployment.

While the PICs began their rounds around the Earth at 7 km/s, the rocket burned up in the atmosphere and fell in pieces into the ocean (another fate uncommon among eleven-passenger Ubers).

Back in Utah, the team enlisted every organization they could think of to help them track the PICs. Walton said one SatNogs amateur ground station enthusiast heard a signal from the right frequency while pointing at the right place, but it was too quiet to get any data.

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the team went to the salt flats in the Western Utah desert to try to hear the beacon. They met silence.

“I’m really disappointed by the performance of the radio,” Dr. Long said. But the team will keep trying to find a signal. He said if they find one, they can invest money and set up a station somewhere else (they currently rely on the antenna atop the Clyde building).

Meanwhile, readers can take a look at the night sky, where the PICs have made themselves at home. “[Our] handiwork is soaring one step closer to the stars, passing overhead at 7 km/s,” Walton said.