satellite team with tower lit
The UT tower was lit up burnt orange on the evening of Feb. 4 in honor of the Texas Spacecraft Lab's recent win in the national Nanosatellite competition.

The University of Texas at Austin's Texas Spacecraft Lab (TSL), under the direction of Professor Glenn Lightsey, has won first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program held on January 11, 2013.

The competition, which is sponsored by the US Air Force, selects ten universities to design and build their own satellites over a period of two years. After two years, a panel of experts judges the satellites at Air Force Research Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two categories of winning satellites were awarded this year– UT’s entry (known as ARMADILLO) was selected as the first place winner in the CubeSat class and Georgia Tech also won in the Nanosatellite class.

ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurements And Detection of submILLimeter Objects) is a three unit CubeSat that contains two instruments. CubeSats are miniature handheld satellites that are generally built using commercial off-the shelf electronics components, making them very cost-effective. The ARMADILLO satellite’s dimensions measure 10 cm x 10 cm x 34 cm.

Once in orbit, ARMADILLO will measure space debris, which will allow scientists to characterize it and better understand the sources and life cycles of space pollution. Space debris is a hazard for operational spacecraft. Currently, only space objects larger than 10 cm can be tracked by ground-based radars.

satellite group
The ARMADILLO satellite team at the University Nanosatellite-7 competition at Air Force Research Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The UT CubeSat’s primary payload, the Piezo Dust Detector (PDD), was contributed by Baylor University’s CASPER lab. It will be used to measure small impacts to the satellite caused by space debris. The secondary payload is a GPS receiver, which is being built at The University of Texas Radionavigation Lab. The receiver will be used to measure GPS radio occultations and provide precise orbit determination.

According to Professor Lightsey, Director of the Texas Spacecraft Lab, developing small satellites such as ARMADILLO marks a big step in the progression of the space industry.

It is expensive to launch spacecraft into orbit. Since the cost of flying a spacecraft is based on its size and mass, the only way to improve access to space is to make the spacecraft smaller. By decreasing the size of the satellite, it will also be possible for groups of satellites to work cooperatively and perform operations simultaneously, such as building structures in space and taking measurements collectively.

“We’re making these small satellites with much more advanced technology and capability than has ever been done before,” Lightsey said. “This will lead to breakthroughs with forecasting the weather, studying the origins of the universe, discovering Earth-like planets in other solar systems, developing better telecommunications and more.”

The ARMADILLO mission is a research project that incorporates systems engineering throughout the entire process. Students who participate in the project gain valuable hands-on experience while working in the TSL.

“These hands-on projects improve the research experience by allowing students to put into practice what they learn in a theoretical and classroom setting,” said graduate student Katharine Brumbaugh, who serves as the ARMADILLO student manager. “Many times we think we know the material, but then real-life complications set in and you have to find a new solution. Working on ARMADILLO allows students to learn how to deal with these situations on tangible products.”

ARMADILLO has become Brumbaugh’s research as a PhD candidate in the Aerospace Engineering program.

“Few research topics allow such hands-on experience as part of the degree program. Because we are physically building a spacecraft, I am able to work on the theoretical aspects of my research, but then walk into the lab and see them in action. I am able to mentor the younger students and gain valuable leadership experience on a real spacecraft mission. Over the past two years, I've learned what is necessary to take a spacecraft from initial design to flight-like quality. These skills are exactly what I plan on using for my career. ” 

Thanks to its success at the national competition, the TSL will spend the next two years bringing its satellite to life. The lab will refine the design, build the flight unit, upgrade the ground station and eventually launch ARMADILLO into space where it will collect data and perform the scientific mission. Throughout the process, the research team will meet with experts from the Air Force who will conduct reviews and provide technical support.

ARMADILLO will launch sometime toward the end of 2014 or early 2015. It will be launched as a secondary payload aboard a NASA rocket.

The Texas Spacecraft Lab made history when it received this award by becoming the first two-time individual winner of the University Nanosatellite competition. In 2005, the TSL won first place in the national competition with its entry, FASTRAC, which was launched into space on Nov. 19, 2010 and has been operational for more than two years.