Endeavor carrying new star camera from Utah State University

By John Hollenhorst
KSL News
May 16, 2011

LOGAN — As the Endeavor orbiter blasted into space Monday on the second-to-last space shuttle mission, it carried a small camera designed and built at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Known by its acronym, DISC, the Digital Imaging Star Camera will be delivered to the International Space Station and attached to the outside of the orbiting structure for several months of product testing.

"This is a development unit that's going up on the space station in order to prove that this new concept will work," said Dr. Quinn Young of the USU Space Dynamics Laboratory. "And then it will be used for operational missions at a later time."

DISC is designed to be placed on small spacecraft and satellites to make sure they always point in the right direction. Proper orientation in space can be a crucial issue, especially for satellites collecting scientific data.

"Every satellite needs to be able to point in the right direction in order to do its mission," Young said.


USU Space Dynamics Laboratory's Digital Imaging Star Camera or DISC, is onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour takes it's final flight. The device will be attached to the outside of the International Space Station to capture images of stars as a mean orienting future space crafts. (USU Space Dynamics Labratory)

The DISC approach is based on a concept as old as the ancient mariner and as new as the space program: using the stars as a way for a traveler to get his bearings. The camera captures images of stars and the patterns they make in the sky. "And when you take that pattern and match it up against a catalog of patterns," Young said, "it will tell you exactly where you're pointing."

The Space Dynamics Laboratory has produced similar devices for many years but the one launched on Endeavor is a breakthrough in size and cost. It's only a few inches long and each unit is expected to cost a few hundred thousand dollars. Larger star cameras currently available typically cost millions of dollars each. "This capability is already out there," Young said. "What we're doing is miniaturizing it to allow (it to be used by) smaller and smaller spacecraft."

A potential market for the device is a new generation of tiny satellites that are typically used for scientific monitoring of the Earth and its environment. The satellites can be launched in bunches from a single rocket because each one is "about the size of a loaf of bread," Young said. If the star camera turns a profit, the money goes back into research and development at USU.

The university and its Space Dynamics Laboratory have an unusually close association with the space shuttle program. Since the first shuttle was launched in 1981, USU has put more scientific projects on board than any other university in the world.

But the shuttle program will die this summer with the final launch of the Atlantis orbiter. The U.S. Government is trying to shift direction and move the space-launch capability from a government function to commercial companies.  The proposed shift has raised concerns that science-related missions will slow down. But NASA claims that if several companies move into the launch business, it will actually give science missions a boost.

"Whether that's a scientific experiment that NASA's doing, or from a university that's working in partnership with NASA, the idea is to increase the number of opportunities to get to the space station," said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.

Young said Utah State's development efforts often require testing in space. "It would be nice to have continued access to space," Young said, "and we hope that we'll continue to have opportunities to do that."

The current DISC project is funded by the Naval Research Laboratory.

© 2011