students from texas spacecraft lab photo
Student members of the Texas Spacecraft Lab with the ground communication system that will be used to communicate with the ARMADILLO satellite. View more photos.

Members of the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory (TSL) in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics are getting a taste of what working as an engineer will be like after graduation. In the TSL, students from a variety of engineering and science disciplines at UT Austin gain valuable hands-on experience with space research by designing, building and operating satellites. 

The group works in collaboration with universities such as Baylor and Georgia Tech and organizations like NASA and the U.S. Air Force. In fact, several TSL alumni have gone on to work for institutions like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

Lab members are currently working on the award-winning ARMADILLO satellite, a CubeSat mission designed to collect data on submillimeter dust particles in low Earth orbit. Built in collaboration with Baylor University, the ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurements and Detection of Submillimeter Objects) satellite is being prepared for environmental testing and is currently scheduled to launch in April 2018.

Aerospace engineering junior Alexis Zinni has been in close contact with AFRL engineers and technicians to learn more about small-satellite fabrication and testing. Zinni, team lead for the structural, power, and thermal systems, said the experience has given her the ability to see how engineering projects evolve from start to finish.

“This lab is basically the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” Zinni said. “I get the chance to work hands-on with an actual spacecraft as an undergrad. That’s something I never would have dreamed of. TSL has certainly provided me a chance to experience what true engineering is like.”

In the meantime, other TSL members are preparing to present on the readiness of ARMADILLO ground operations to AFRL reviewers in November. Aerospace engineering junior and lead systems engineer for ARMADILLO Zachary McLaughlin said part of what separates the TSL from student organizations is its collaboration with and funding from influential external sources like AFRL. He said those elements add weight to his work and are an important motivational factor for students.

armadillo satellite
The ARMADILLO satellite is scheduled to launch in April 2018.

“Here, there’s a $300,000 spacecraft we have to support and make sure we’re ready to work with,” McLaughlin said. “It gives students the opportunity to work with real flight hardware and software, to work with a team of engineers and to work on supporting and operating an instrument.”

TSL director Noble Hatten, Ph.D., said interacting with students working on ARMADILLO feels more like working in a professional setting than at a university.

“I’ve been really impressed by a lot of the students,” Hatten said. “I don’t even think of some of them as students anymore—they’re more like coworkers. I know I can trust them and they do good work. That’s been a really rewarding part of it for me.”

Once ARMADILLO is launched, the group will focus on both ARMADILLO flight operations and the development of new small-satellite projects. Proposed projects currently under review by sponsoring agencies include a multi-CubeSat Earth science mission and the development of algorithms to support the coordination of large numbers of small satellites.

For more information on the Texas Spacecraft Lab, visit