Jed J. Hancock was never supposed to be an electrical engineer — or so he was told.
After returning from a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Venezuela, Hancock attended Utah State University to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. But a university adviser didn’t think it was in the stars — warning him, he said, that electrical engineers are born, not made, and the young man from northern Utah probably wouldn’t make it.
“That was all I needed to ignite a fire in me to be the hardest worker that I could be at this,” Hancock said, years later, of his undergraduate studies.
That fire eventually caught the attention of engineering professor and Space Dynamics Laboratory founder Doran Baker, who, Hancock said, helped him land a NASA fellowship to pay his way to his master’s degree from Utah State. Baker, an engineer and space researcher, saw something in Hancock that others had not.
After about 20 laps around the sun and a doctoral degree in optical science later, Hancock is president of the Space Dynamics Laboratory, a Utah State engineering and research lab that partners with the federal government to develop space and defense technology.
Some of that technology has now traveled hundreds of millions of miles across space and allowed NASA to take images and mineral samples of the asteroid Bennu. Later this month, that space mission, OSIRIS-REx, will return those samples to Earth, and provide what scientists hope will be a greater understanding of the origins of life in our universe.
The eyes of OSIRIS-REx
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in September 2016 — its sights aimed at Bennu. But the work on those sights, the cameras that help OSIRIS navigate and map its way across space, began in 2012 at Space Dynamics Laboratory.
Partnering with the University of Arizona, where Hancock earned his doctorate, SDL developed the detector assemblies and electrical components behind the lenses of the uncrewed spacecraft’s three cameras, known collectively as the OCAMS.
The trio of cameras, each serving a specific purpose on the 20-foot spacecraft, are called the PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam. The suite of visible instruments also went through vibration testing at SDL to ensure they could withstand the rigors of launching into space.
OSIRIS’s PolyCam includes a focusing capability that allows the spacecraft — and scientists back on Earth — to see Bennu from across space, and then focus on Bennu’s surface once arriving to the asteroid in late 2018. Before launch, Hancock explained, the PolyCam also went through stray light testing at SDL to ensure the powerful camera would work as intended.
“That camera would need to be used with lots of different solar angles and different positions with respect to the sun and the asteroid,” Hancock said in an interview at his North Logan office. “So we did a full test here to make sure that would work appropriately on orbit.”
The MapCam, as its name describes, allowed OSIRIS to map Bennu’s surface in color. The SamCam, or sample camera, was used to document what OSIRIS was collecting while on the surface of Bennu.
OSIRIS-REx, short for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer, is rapidly approaching Earth and the end of its original mission. On the morning or Sunday, Sept. 24, the spacecraft will release a Sample Return Capsule — or SRC — into our atmosphere over the California coast, which, if all goes as planned, will hurtle east towards the Utah Test and Training Range range near the Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds.
A team from Lockheed Martin, which built and designed the spacecraft, is slated to retrieve the SRC, providing NASA with what they think will be about an 8-ounce sample of Bennu — and, potentially, clues to the origins of our universe.
But OSIRIS isn’t done exploring yet, and will set its sights on a new mission, using its suite of visual sensors to study the asteroid Apophis, which is expected to travel close to Earth in 2029, according to NASA. The new mission, OSIRIS-APEX — for Apophis Explorer — will be the latest in a decades-long tradition of the Cache Valley-based laboratory contributing to the United States’ exploration of the universe.
Utah State’s history in space
Officially founded by Baker in 1982, SDL scientists and engineers have been working on space programs and sensor systems for decades longer.
According to the laboratory, Utah State scientists and engineers first became involved with space and rocketry experimentation at the end of World War II, and have worked on military imagery and intelligence systems, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and counter-UAS programs, and satellite technology for decades now.
In 1996, SDL became a University Affiliated Research Center [UARC] for the Department of Defense, formalizing Utah State’s partnership with the federal government.
“DoD’s long-term strategic relationship with UARCs requires them to provide and maintain advanced and sophisticated engineering, research, and/or development capabilities essential to the Department’s mission and operations,” the Defense Department said on its website of its university research relationships.
Hancock, at the helm of the laboratory since 2021, spoke proudly of the research and development conducted by SDL.
”Over all these years, we’ve been able to deliver on our promises to our mission partners, which includes NASA and the Department of Defense,” he said. “Our goal is to protect our nation, but also to ensure that we’re part of the most daring scientific discoveries.”
Later this fall, members of SDL will travel to Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of a new telescope that, from the International Space Station, will aim to produce the first map of the momentum and energy — or " space weather” — between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, he said.
“The mission operations will be led right here from SDL, and the science operations will be done at Utah State,” Hancock said of the projected two-year-long mission.
While space exploration may be synonymous with the Kennedy and Johnson space centers in Florida and Texas, Utah’s frontier may also be in the stars.
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