BYU students launch an idea into space with help from NASA

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.