After a much-anticipated wait and over five years of dedicated work, students, faculty and alumni of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics were finally able to celebrate the day that their award-winning small satellite—ARMADILLO—was launched and deployed into space.



On Tuesday, June 25 at 2:30 a.m. EDT, the ARMADILLO CubeSat was one of 24 satellites launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the U.S. Department of Defense’s first ever SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Once operational, ARMADILLO will focus on tracking and characterizing sub-millimeter space debris orbiting Earth—debris that is currently too small to be tracked from the ground. Space debris can be a hazard to operational spacecraft and currently, Earth telescopes can only track objects larger than 10 cm.

Designed and built in the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory (TSL) at The University of Texas at Austin, ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurements And Detection of Sub-Millimeter Objects) won first place in the 2013 Air Force Research Laboratory’s University Nanosatellite Program for its CubeSat, small cost-effective satellites that are generally built using commercial off-the shelf electronics components. Since the inception of ARMADILLO, over 100 students across multiple disciplines have worked on the mission.

According to Brandon Jones, a professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics and the director of the TSL, students have been undergoing training in the use of the ground system software and testing all of the hardware components to ensure they are ready for operations once ARMADILLO is operational. The recent move to the new ASE building required the team to disassemble, move and reassemble the ground station over the last six months, so testing all of the components is crucial.

This summer, Zac McLaughlin, aerospace engineering major and chief engineer of ARMADILLO, has been coordinating flight rehearsals to train students in the TSL.

“After I learned how to operate ARMADILLO, I trained the students in the TSL to ensure they were familiar with tracking and ground station software and hardware, as well as the command uplink and telemetry interpretation software used for ARMADILLO,” said McLaughlin. “This involves teaching the students operations principles and how things like the spacecraft’s attitude, temperature and voltages are important. Now that ARMADILLO has been deployed, I am responsible for ensuring that the commands we send to the spacecraft are appropriate, will keep the satellite healthy, and fit with the long-term science goals of the mission.”

According to McLaughlin, TSL will be responsible for directing operations and satellite passes at both UT and Georgia Tech, which is collaborating with TSL to listen to and command ARMADILLO. Texas Engineering students, with help from UT graduate student and former chief engineer, Shivani Patel, along with amateur radio listeners across the world, will assist with ARMADILLO’s initial check out, which will validate the health and performance of the instruments and subsystem components on orbit.
armadillo satellite photoOnce operational, ARMADILLO will focus on tracking and characterizing sub-millimeter space debris orbiting Earth—debris that is currently too small to be tracked from the ground.View more photos.

ARMADILLO consists of three payloads. The major payload—the Piezoelectric Dust Detector (PDD)—will measure the voltage generated by impacts to the spacecraft, helping to determine the size and velocity of the particles that collide with ARMADILLO. It was designed and built by Baylor University’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER).

The secondary payload, the FOTON (Fast, Orbital, Tec, Observables, And Navigation), is a GPS receiver built by students in the UT Austin Radionavigation Laboratory which will determine the satellite’s precise location and take measurements of the atmosphere by conducting GPS radio occultation experiments. Successful occultations will allow the Radionavigation Laboratory to monitor and predict space weather.

The final payload is the retroreflector, which was provided to the TSL by the NASA Ames Research Center. Operators in the TSL will point the spacecraft towards a station on the ground in order to conduct laser ranging experiments.

Alexis Zinni at launch site photo
Alexis Zinni, TSL student director, at the launch site on the day ARMADILLO was launched.

Alexis Zinni, the TSL student director and aerospace engineering major, has been working at AFRL this summer as an intern, where she was afforded the opportunity to observe the launch in person. She said so far, this has been the biggest highlight of her life.

“I would not be remiss to say over 100 students have worked on ARMADILLO since its inception in 2013," said Zinni. “Sending our satellite to space commemorates the dedication, grit and talent of these students over the years, and we are so thrilled to bring such an honor to our school. Watching the launch with my own eyes was exhilarating, emotional, and a moment I will never, ever forget.”

From Jones’ perspective, projects like ARMADILLO are invaluable learning experiences that provide opportunities for students to gain firsthand knowledge of what is required to design, construct and operate a spacecraft.

“The impact this project will have for our students cannot be quantified,” said Jones. “ARMADILLO is helping to train our students to be the next generation of spacecraft designers and operators, which goes far beyond what can be done in the classroom. It was conceived of, built, and will be operated by UT Austin students.”

TSL group photoThe Texas Spacecraft Lab was recently selected to participate in a new University Nanosatllite Program for its mission, SERPENT. To learn more about the TSL and their current satellite projects, visit their website