Last month, a satellite belonging to Lithuanian space company NanoAvionics took a selfie of itself in 4K resolution from a GoPro Hero 7 the company modified to be used in space. The camera wasn’t just used to bolster its Instagram–the photos also helped the company test and verify the operation of systems on the satellite itself.
“When the satellite is observing itself, in some cases that might be very valuable,” explains NanoAvioncs cofounder and CEO Bytenis Buzas. “You can get confirmations of the deployable elements, if your solar panels have been deployed or antennas have been deployed.”
Mounting a GoPro camera on a satellite is not standard operating procedure for a space mission, because most equipment that goes to space needs to be “hardened” – that is, protected from solar radiation that has the potential to knock out delicate electronics equipment. But in this case, Buzas, 36, explains that it was something of a necessity. ‘The timeframe was too short to get space grade cameras,” he explained.
However, the company had tested GoPro cameras for stratospheric flights before, and thought it might work for this particular mission, which was primarily geared towards testing how well the company’s new payload controller could handle the generation and transmission of large datasets, like the kind produced by high-resolution cameras.
Putting the two cameras on the satellite wasn’t as easy as just fastening the cameras down. The hardware had to be stripped down to accommodate space requirements on the satellite, and then the cameras had to be interfaced with the payload controller and software. There was also a certain element of risk involved in using non-hardened equipment, Buzas explains, especially since the Sun has been relatively active lately. “This is a matter of statistics,” he says. “If that bullet–that particle from the Sun–is either going to hit a certain transistor on board or not.”
His company, however, was prepared to take the risk. That’s because this type of experimentation is built into the DNA of NanoAvionics. The company has its origins at NASA’s Ames Research Center, where Buzas worked briefly with Linas Sargautis, now 36. Their experience at the research center inspired them to build their own satellite.
During 2013, Buzas and Sargautis built that satellite, called LituanicaSAT-1, with the assistance of Vilnius University and over 30 partner organizations. Built on a standardized “cubesat” platform, the tiny satellite was equipped with a camera salvaged from a smart doorbell and other equipment, and was deployed from Nanoracks’ system on board the International Space Station in early 2014. This was the first Lithuanian satellite to make it to space.
From that experience, Buzas and Sargautis founded NanoAvionics in 2014, funded by a grant from Lithuanian’s Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology. In 2017, the company launched its first satellite powered by a sustainable propellant system the company developed in-house. In 2018, a majority stake in the company was purchased by Midland, TX-based satellite internet company AST & Science.
Since then, the company has grown to 156 employees, with facilities in the U.K., Texas and Illinois. It’s so far launched 19 satellites, 8 in 2022 alone, and has implemented over a 100 commercial space projects.
When it comes to the company’s latest project, taking a selfie of a satellite in space might seem like a lark, but Buzas hopes it goes further than that. “Photos and videos of satellites circling our planet could draw more attention and help more people and organizations to realize the societal, economic, educational and environmental benefits that satellites provide,” he said in a statement. “It could also inspire more people to take up careers in the rapidly growing space industry.”