RACE satellite team
Members of the Texas Spacecraft Lab conduct RACE solar panel testing on the roof of the Aerospace Engineering building, WRW, on the UT campus.

 The Texas Spacecraft Laboratory (TSL), directed by Professor Glenn Lightsey, has partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to create the Radiometer Atmospheric Cubesat Experiment (RACE) mission.

The RACE satellite is a spin-stabilized “CubeSat,” measuring 10 cm x 10 cm x 30 cm, and was built to carry a 183 gigahertz radiometer, a new science instrument designed by JPL. The spacecraft will use reflected radiation from the Earth to measure atmospheric water vapor. 

“RACE was unique for the TSL in that instead of developing the mission idea ourselves, we were approached by JPL to build a CubeSat for an instrument they were designing,” said RACE student project manager Karl McDonald.

JPL scientist Boon Lim who serves as the principal investigator of the RACE mission says water vapor is important on a global scale because it helps us understand the water cycle, which is a crucial component of the Earth’s energy balancing system. Monitoring water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere will improve our understanding of both the short and long term impacts of weather and climate processes.

“This mission is all about the science instruments and that’s how you want your missions to be, clearly derived from a science need,” said aerospace engineering graduate student Henri Kjellberg. “The 183 gigahertz radiometer is new in the way it produces the measurements, but you can’t test it on the ground the same way you test it in space, so we are sending it to space.”

According to Lightsey, these types of measurements are traditionally made with larger spacecraft, but could be performed more cost effectively if science quality observations can be made on a smaller platform such as a CubeSat.

“Small satellites represent a new way of providing low cost and rapid access to space. For example, it is now possible to fly an experiment in space to see if a concept works on a smaller scale before trying it on a larger, higher cost system,” Lightsey said. “This is just one of many ways that small satellites can be used to improve space exploration.”

Members of the Lightsey Research Group recently finished constructing RACE in less than a year, the fastest turnaround time of any TSL mission to date. RACE is one of seven satellites built in the TSL that have flown in space or are currently scheduled for launch. The satellite was delivered to JPL on February 24 and is scheduled to launch later this year when it will be stowed aboard a Cygnus ISS resupply vehicle and delivered to the International Space Station.

The RACE mission was a collaborative designing and building effort by an interdisciplinary group of undergraduate and graduate students, including aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer science engineering majors. Under the guidance of Lightsey, students were involved throughout the entire process, from design work to the final assembly of the spacecraft. They relied on their previous knowledge of building CubeSats to construct the RACE satellite in less than a year.

“There is no instruction manual to build RACE, so the last three months have been a whirlwind of activity. This time period involves a crucial step in the building process, which the TSL refers to as ‘build, test, and rebuild,’ ” McDonald said. “Students build a section of the spacecraft and test all the systems for fit and functionality. If something doesn’t work we troubleshoot, which at times involves taking the spacecraft apart, finding the problem and rebuilding it. Once we work out the kinks we construct the final build.”

After RACE has successfully launched, the TSL will manage the satellite in low Earth orbit and conduct mission operations using its ground control station located on the UT campus. Mission operations will be conducted by students using a software-defined radio that will monitor the spacecraft and send it commands to downlink the data. The ground station will have two 10-minute opportunities per day to communicate with the satellite.

The TSL provides students with the opportunity to gain real-world experience and learn skills in all aspects of engineering. Members of the Lightsey Research Group work in a collaborative environment where they develop skills in areas like teamwork and leadership in addition to aerospace engineering.

“The emphasis in the Spacecraft Lab is on problem-solving, regardless of where the current task takes us as a group,” says Lightsey. “Although the students have learned basic skills in classes, many of the problems we solve are not taught in the classroom. Students in the TSL are prepared to become the leaders of future endeavors because of the experience they gain here.”

The Texas Spacecraft Lab received national recognition in 2013 when it won first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program for its CubeSat entry, ARMADILLO, which is expected to fly in 2015.