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BYU’s ‘Spacecraft Selfie Cams’ reach space, history-making cube-satellites deployed

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PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – The science team at Brigham Young University (BYU) is finally where no Cougar has gone before, with a camera.

“Spacecraft Selfie Cam” is the nickname of BYU’s tiny cube satellites, “CubeSats” for short.

The school’s science team has made history with the tiny 6-inch space probes. For the first time, satellites designed in Provo have been successfully deployed in space.

David G. Long, Professor, Electrical and Computer in the engineering department and the Director for BYU’s Center for Remote Sensing, lead the team of scientists and students.

He is also the person given credit for “Spacecraft Selfie Cam.” The CubeSats look like a tiny square with cameras on each side.

CubeSat Courtesy BYU

BYU is part of a NASA project where the directive is, “The PICs mission will demonstrate low-risk, low-cost, spacecraft inspection by a passive, fly-away probe.”

What does it mean? The satellites are designed to take pictures of other satellites, and that’s how they got the name “Spacecraft Selfie Cam” If you watch science fiction movies, you have seen the probes portrayed hundreds of times in many ways. Essentially the probes fly out into space from the spacecraft and inspect for damage. Only BYU’s little probes are real.

ABC4 reported preparation for the mission, which took 60 students over five years to get ready

On January 17, 2021, Virgin Orbit deployed a rocket successfully into space, and the Cougars tiny CubeSats were on the flight.

Virgin Orbit’s launch sequence is different than others. Their rocket is hauled into the sky from the Mojave Space Port and flown out over the ocean by a 747 nickname “Cosmic Girl.”

This launch, they flew to fifty miles south of the California Channel Islands, then at 35,000 feet (6.6 miles), the rocket is dropped off the airplane’s wing, ignites, and streaks into outer space.

The mission was also the first time Virgin Orbit has launched successfully, they deployed 10 satellites, and 2 of them were from BYU.

Patrick Walton, a BYU graduate student, said in the school’s video release, “They are only the third company to successfully put a rocket into orbit, and we were on that flight, so we’re feeling really good about that.”

Getting to space is just part of the action. Once in space, the CubeSats have to be deployed. This time separation into space went exactly as planned.

The CubeSats were deployed by what can only be described as a giant spring loaded Pez-dispenser. It opens, and they are popped out into space like little space darts.

Then they had to wake up, and started to work.

Walton exclaimed, “They said we’re now in space, and I was just ecstatic. It’s been years that I wanted to work on Space technology, and now I finally have something in space!”

Dr. Long said, “Have you ever seen Star Wars? The pod race? When they (Virgin Orbit) told us they had seen the camera flashes, I felt like Anakin Skywalker when the pods finally fired up and aligned so he could race.”

You can see the camera flash in space in this video

Camera flash in space after Satellites were deployed Courtesy Virgin Orbit

It didn’t go completely perfect; the Cougar scientists faced unexpected adversity. After all that work, the CubeSats were not in an orbit where they could not talk to the BYU team on the ground at the school.

The team tried to reroute the conduits; they realized the satellites would be flying over the Salt Flats. The team raced out there in the middle of the night to communicate with the spacecraft and couldn’t do it with a laptop and a car.

But not all is lost.

The slightly rogue probes will come into alignment in the coming weeks and the BYU team will be ready to download the pictures, so stand by, the pictures are coming.

“Cougars in Space” will continue…

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