BYU students launch an idea into space with help from NASA

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Engineering student Josh Cannon adjusts the antennas on the Passive Inspection CubeSat created by BYU engineering students. This is BYU’s first ever satellite made by BYU students. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Over 60 BYU engineering students will make history on Dec. 19 when BYU’s first satellite is launched into space.

“I know so many ways it could go wrong. But if it goes right, I will be just over the moon,” said electrical engineering graduate student and system engineer Patrick Walton, who knows the satellite inside and out.

Walton was fascinated by space exploration growing up and was saddened to realize few advancements in space exploration were being made due to the increasingly high cost.

Despite knowing he would have to be a billionaire to accomplish anything space-related, Walton started forming an idea. He wanted to design a virtual reality camera to be sent into space on a satellite.

As an undergraduate student in 2014, he attended a satellite conference at Utah State University. Coincidentally, the theme of that year’s conference was creating small satellites for businesses. This “formative event” pushed Walton to keep building on his camera satellite idea.

Walton realized if businesses started participating more in space, the cost for building a satellite was suddenly feasible.

With this in mind, Walton said he started exploring his idea of putting a virtual reality camera into space. He reached out to space companies and found that in order to gain support in the small market, the camera would need to also take pictures of the vehicle that launches it into space.

Walton started gathering a team of friends and professors who were interested in his idea. Walton pitched his camera idea to engineering professor David Long, a former NASA engineer and spacecraft system designer.

Long said Walton came to him with his “brilliant” idea and asked him to teach a class on how to build spacecraft. He said Walton wanted to “build a spacecraft mission” and through this class, Long could teach Walton and other engineering students how to do it.

Sure enough, Long taught a special projects class in Winter Semester 2015, where Walton began his journey of completing the camera project.

“No one at BYU knew how to build a satellite. It’s BYU’s first satellite and BYU’s first experience building something that can free fly in space,” Walton said.

A BYU alumnus provided a free launch opportunity to the students while they were in Long’s class. The projected launch was to be in June 2015, but it fell through. Walton found as he talked to vehicle launch providers that the market demand for his camera was not looking too great.

Connecting with NASA

Right before dropping the project, Walton received an email from Long that NASA was looking to fund satellites built by university students to eventually be launched into space.

“This is your project. This is your baby,” Long told Walton, who then took the bulk of responsibility in writing two proposals to NASA. One proposal for funding and one for a launch provider.

Almost a year later in April 2016, Walton was in the middle of the Arizona desert driving to a Space Access conference when he got a life-changing email.

NASA had approved the proposals and given BYU $200,000 to start working on the Passive Inspection CubeSat (PICS) project.

“To our knowledge, no one has built anything quite like this before,” Long said. “It’s all original to BYU. No spacecraft design is quite like it.”

Part of NASA’s expectation for providing the funding was BYU could only employ undergraduate students for this project. Walton, still an undergraduate student at the time, became the system engineer, and he had a team of 10 other undergraduate students to work with. Over the next year, the PICS team designed, planned and tested parts as they attempted their first CubeSat, or miniaturized satellite, prototype.

However, the team had a rude awakening when they assembled the satellite together for the first time in the summer of 2017.

“We didn’t realize that we made something that was almost impossible to build,” Walton said. But with the launch scheduled in November that year, the team didn’t have enough time to switch the design and instead muscled through with the original plans.

An adequate prototype was finished after essentially crocheting wires into tiny holes of the CubeSat. The vehicle launch provider, Virgin Orbit, was overly optimistic in its launch plans and was forced to push back the launch date.

Walton said the team fell into a vicious cycle; they were caught in a “game of chicken” where there was never enough time to fix the problems with the launch looming overhead. To add to the issue, launch plans kept falling through.

“The devil was in the details,” Walton said.

After months of playing this game, the team finally decided in late 2018 to redesign the entire satellite structure. A few months later, they had fully assembled a satellite ready for testing.

The Passive Inspection CubeSat is a 10 cm cube with cell phone-like cameras on all six faces. After the vehicle launches and reaches space, the two CubeSats are deployed in a Pez-dispenser fashion. Each CubeSat then immediately starts taking pictures of the spacecraft, the other CubeSat, earth and anything else near the satellite. Because there are cameras on each face of the cube, the data will provide a virtual environment, as if those viewing it are in space themselves.

Long said releasing the data will allow people to have a “virtual system to look around in space.”

The PICS project is hoping to carve a path for more technology to be created for satellites that will inspect spacecraft for damage while in space. Technology like this will hopefully improve the safety and efficacy of spacecraft.

Talking to the satellite

The finalized PICS was almost ready to be sent into space when Walton and his team realized a big part of the satellite project hadn’t been finished yet.

“Oh great — we built a satellite. How do we talk to it now?” Walton said.

Walton graduated from BYU in 2017 and passed on the project to other undergraduate students who took on the challenge of building the ground station. His role as system engineer was not replaced due to it only being needed during the development phase of the camera. Instead, different students became the project leads who took over for the rest of the project.

Even though Walton was no longer an active member of the team, he was the first person consulted by the team when they had system engineering questions.

Once the PICS has taken pictures, a ground station is needed to receive and interpret the data from the satellite.

Computer engineering senior James Smith said the radio for the satellite was originally created by a startup company they were working with. But when that company went out of business, they gave the PICS project all the stuff they had for radios. “The radio was never completely finished, so that’s been the hardest thing,” he said.

Smith said he thinks it is cool how feasible a project like this is for BYU students. “If you have the right skills, you don’t have to be a Ph.D. You don’t have to have tons of experience to work on something that can go to space and hopefully talk to it,” he said.

The team successfully tracked a weather satellite in June 2019, a big milestone for the radio team. During the next year, the launch repeatedly got delayed as the team worked on perfecting the satellite and ground station.

Electrical engineering senior Ben Francis became the project lead in April 2020. He said that while the launch delays aren’t ideal, they have given the team extra time to test, improve and build confidence in their ground station.

“We are almost lucky it was delayed because we have gotten a really awesome ground station out of it,” Francis said.

The PICS ground station is comprised of a set of radio receivers, transmitters and computers as well as two big satellite dishes located on the roof of the Clyde Engineering Building.

Jacob Stratford, another member of the radio team and an electrical engineering senior, said they had to go through a process of finding the bugs in the radio system, isolating them and fixing them to ensure the radios were sending correct signals that could be interpreted by the ground station.

BYU produced a video showing the CubeSat and ground station up close. (BYU University Communications)

Getting ready to launch

Virgin Orbit successfully launched its rocket LauncherOne in May 2020, which was a necessary step in paving the way for a second launch where the PICS satellite will be onboard the spacecraft.

Final launch preparations were now underway for the PICS team.

Virgin Orbit sent the satellite dispenser to BYU in August, where Stratford and Francis practiced putting the satellite into the dispenser via instructions from Virgin Orbit related over Zoom. The students wore white hazmat suits to ensure COVID-19 safety and prevent the spread of germs before mailing the satellite to Virgin Orbit’s headquarters in California.

A month and a half later in October, the roles were reversed. BYU students directed Virgin Orbit workers in hazmat suits for integration — the process of placing the satellite in the dispenser and onto the rocket. The satellite is delicate and had to be put in correctly or it could malfunction.

Stratford said these “glorified Zoom calls” for integration were some of the most memorable moments of the project.

Throughout the duration of this project, the members of the team were constantly shifting due to students leaving for internships, graduating or moving onto other projects.

“It’s such a patch job project because no one stays on it for too long. Everything is partially done and our challenge is to get it to all work together,” Stratford said.

During the six years this project developed, over 60 undergraduate engineering students worked on the CubeSat. “A lot of people have gotten their hands dirty in this project and there are a lot of people super excited to see it go up,” Stratford said.

On Nov. 30, Virgin Orbit officially announced the launch date for its Launch Demo 2 mission. The launch window for the mission is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19, with a similar window the next day as well.

The press release said eight other CubeSat missions “fully designed and built by universities across the US” will be accompanying PICS on Launch Demo 2. This will mark Virgin Orbit’s first mission carrying customers’ satellites onboard the spacecraft.

“We’re proud to become part of NASA’s long history of taking measured risks to bring new spaceflight capabilities to humankind. That is what Virgin Orbit is all about,” the press release said.

After months of delays and years of work, the time for launch has finally come for the PICS team.

“It may have taken longer than I’d hoped back then, but it’s crazy to see that those big hopes are being realized,” Walton said.

Many of the students said they are both excited and nervous for the satellite to be launched. “I just really, really want it to work at this point,” Stratford said.

Once the spacecraft is launched and hits the atmosphere, the CubeSat will be dispensed and start taking pictures. The solar panels lining the CubeSat will keep its battery charged so it can continuously send a beacon every 30 seconds.

The PICS will orbit the earth about every 90 minutes. Due to multiple factors, such as only having one ground station and the mountains inhibiting the view, the satellite will only be in range of the ground station for about 5-10 minutes, twice a day. This limited time being in range means it will take several days or even weeks to collect all of the data and pictures from the CubeSat.

Besides the priceless data the CubeSat will collect, new technology, opportunities and skills are resulting for those involved in the project. Francis said he will link the “invaluable experience” he gained from this project to his capstone.

Walton, the man who started it all, said he is grateful for the opportunity to continue learning and improving from what he did for this project.

“That’s what has grown out of PICS. It has become this opportunity to take those lessons, painful lessons, and figure out how to apply them in better ways, at lower costs and do some important science work,” Walton said.

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