Katharine Brumbaugh
Katharine Brumbaugh holds the bus module of the Bevo-2 satellite.

When PhD candidate Katharine Brumbaugh (right) first stepped foot onto The University of Texas at Austin campus for a prospective graduate student visit, she fell in love: not only with the school, but also with the city of Austin, and most importantly, with the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory (TSL). Thanks to her hard work and outstanding results, Brumbaugh has been selected as a recipient of the competitively awarded National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG).

Collaborating with her faculty advisor Professor Glenn Lightsey and a team of students working in the TSL, Brumbaugh has led award-winning satellite projects and is performing research on the reliability and risk analysis of small satellites known as CubeSats. Their research is helping this class of small satellites provide more functionality in space at lower cost than ever before.

Brumbaugh completed her Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University in 2010. She joined the Lightsey Research Group because of her interest in spacecraft design and systems engineering. 

Since 2011, Brumbaugh has had the opportunity to lead two satellite projects that the TSL is currently working on, known as ARMADILLO and RACE. Both satellites carry science experiments that will be launched into low Earth orbit, but the missions are different. ARMADILLO will study space debris and dust in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and RACE will carry an instrument known as a radiometer that is used to measure Earth water vapor radiance. Both missions are enabled by the low cost CubeSat design that was created in the TSL. 

ARMADILLO was recently awarded first place in the CubeSat class by the US Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program. As the project’s student manager, Brumbaugh was responsible for managing the resources of the lab – both human and mechanical – to accomplish the task.

"I'm a perfectionist myself and I have high standards for the lab," Brumbaugh said. "When we went in for our first design review, we blew everyone out of the water with strong documentation and strong representation. Winning the competition was the ultimate reward for this lab and for me as a leader."

Brumbaugh has decided to continue pursuing systems engineering topics for her PhD research, focusing on the risk analysis of CubeSats to perform low cost space missions. She is creating a new statistically verifiable risk model that CubeSat designers will be able to use in the different stages of their project, to better understand the risks associated with designing, building, testing and operating a CubeSat. Instead of the traditionally subjective criteria that are used in assessing spacecraft risks, Brumbaugh’s empirically derived model will provide a quantitative portrayal of the risks associated with these small satellite platforms.

The work requires the collection of data from spacecraft designers around the world, analyzing this data to develop the risk model and developing a software risk analysis tool, which will serve as the end product. By using the tool that Brumbaugh is developing, CubeSat designers will be better informed about the risks of their missions and can make more successful design choices.

Brumbaugh is excited to complete the detailed work of her PhD research in the coming months. She plans to graduate in spring 2015. Upon graduation, she hopes to work in national security and space policy.

"I love systems engineering and space policy," Brumbaugh said. "I want to work with lawmakers to bring nations together to expand human space exploration. We need to venture outside of Earth orbit, such as going to Mars. We've already gone to the moon and it's time for us to do something we haven't done yet, but international cooperation is a must, and this is where space policy enters the arena. Most importantly, I want to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists."