students with satellite
Ashleigh Caison is shown here holding the ARMADILLO CubeSat with Shivani Patel. Both students graduated this spring and worked on integrating the satellite for the past year. View more photos.

Since spring of 2015, students from UT Austin’s Texas Spacecraft Lab (TSL) have been working on integrating the award-winning ARMADILLO CubeSat, which will be launched on the second SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in the first quarter of 2017. Once in orbit, ARMADILLO will characterize space debris at the submillimeter level – space objects that are not currently being tracked. If the mission is successful, it may be possible to replace larger, expensive satellites with smaller, more cost effective CubeSats like ARMADILLO in the near future.

CubeSats are miniature satellites that are generally built using commercial off-the-shelf electronics components, making them very cost-effective. The ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurement And Detection of submILLimeter Objects) satellite’s dimensions measure 10 cm x 10 cm x 34 cm and consists of three payloads.

The primary payload, the Piezoelectric Dust Detector built by Baylor University’s Casper Lab, will characterize collisions of submillimeter particles while in space. By combining a 10 cm x 10 cm Multiple Detector Unit and a smaller Single Detector Unit, engineers will be able to distinguish whether the particles that collide with these units came from deep space or from man-made objects.

The FOTON GPS payload is a receiver built by Professor Todd Humphreys’ research group in UT Austin’s Radionavigation Lab. This payload will involve a technical demonstration using the FOTON GPS receiver that will provide the satellite’s precise orbit determination.

The final unit contains a retro-reflector payload (a corner composed of tiny mirrors), which will help determine ARMADILLO’s location in space. By pointing a laser at the retro-reflector, engineers at NASA’s Ames Research Center will be able to track the satellite’s location and speed. 

The ARMADILLO mission is a hands-on, multidisciplinary project that incorporates systems engineering throughout the entire process. Students who participate in the project gain valuable experience while working in the TSL. Since 2012, students from various engineering and natural science disciplines have worked on the UT CubeSat. For the past year, four students have been working on integrating ARMADILLO – Ashleigh Caison, Sean Horton, David Kessler and Shivani Patel. 

Patel said they have had more creative freedom on this project since some of the electronic components were designed by students in the lab. For instance, aerospace engineering graduate student Sean Horton silkscreened tiny quotes from the Harry Potter series onto the circuit boards. Another quote plays off of the lyrics of the song “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by the British band, Dead or Alive.

Patel and Caison, who graduated this spring, have been working on ARMADILLO since fall 2014.

“This kind of project building is something that isn’t typical for undergrads,” Patel said. “It’s really applicable for industry and we get a look to what our futures are going to be while still being in school.”

Being able to work on ARMADILLO, Caison said, was a unique experience for her.  

“Just having your hands on flight hardware and integrating something that’s actually going to go to space, is really one of the most exciting parts of any flight project,” Caison said. “But to get to do it on such a small team and to get to be so involved is a really unique experience – it’s something I’ve gotten a lot out of.”

The Texas Spacecraft Lab won first place for the ARMADILLO design in the 2013 national University Nanosatellite Program. Building of the CubeSat was funded by the U.S. Air Force.

Integration of ARMADILLO is scheduled to be completed in early summer. The satellite will then be delivered to the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque in late June to be environmentally tested, followed by additional testing at Tyvak in California before being integrated into the SpaceX rocket in Florida.