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The University of Texas at Austin Wins First Place in National Nanosatellite Competition

The University of Texas at Austin’s Satellite Design Lab has won first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program competition for designing and building a small satellite called ARMADILLO.

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The University of Texas at Austin’s Satellite Design Lab has won first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program competition for designing and building a small satellite called ARMADILLO.

Led by Professor Glenn Lightsey in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, the Satellite Design Lab is the first research group to win the University Nanosatellite competition twice as an individual team. In 2005, the lab won first place in the national competition with its entry, FASTRAC, a pair of nanosatellites that was launched into space in 2010. The team is studying how these two satellites work together and share information a technological innovation for such small satellites.

The advancement of nanosatellites could one day 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,” Lightsey said.

The University Nanosatellite Program competition, sponsored by the U.S. Air Force, selects 10 universities to design and build their own satellites over two years under a sponsored research grant. At the end of two years, the projects are judged and the winning satellites are selected for launch into space.

A panel of expert judges selected winners in two categories: ARMADILLO was selected as the first-place winner in the CubeSat class; and The Georgia Institute of Technology won in the Nanosatellite class. CubeSats are miniature handheld satellites that are generally built using off-the-shelf electronics components, making them very cost-effective. The ARMADILLO satellite’s dimensions are 10 cm x 10 cm x 34 cm.

The Cockrell School of Engineering’s team consists of more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students who worked for two years on the ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurements and Detection of submILLimeter Objects) mission. The competition took place at the Air Force Research Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., on Jan. 11.

Once in orbit, ARMADILLO will measure space debris, which will allow scientists to characterize that debris and better understand the sources and life cycles of space pollution. Space debris is a hazard for operational spacecraft. Today, ground-based radar can only detect and track space objects larger than 10 centimeters.

Lightsey said developing small, inexpensive satellites such as ARMADILLO marks a big step in the advancement of space exploration.

“We’re making these small satellites with much more advanced technology and capability than has ever been done before,” Lightsey said. “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.”

Katharine Brumbaugh, a Ph.D. candidate in the aerospace program, said her role as student project manager for AMRADILLO allows her an opportunity to work with undergraduates.

“I am able to mentor the younger students and gain valuable leadership experience on a real spacecraft mission,” Brumbaugh said. “Over the past two years, I’ve learned what is necessary to take a spacecraft from initial design to flight-like quality.”

The award comes with a two-year grant of $55,000 per year and assistance from the Air Force to get the satellite ready for launch. The group plans to refine the design, build the flight unit, upgrade the ground station and eventually launch their satellite into space where it will collect data and perform the scientific mission.

ARMADILLO will be carrying the Piezo Dust Detector (PDD), an instrument contributed by Baylor University’s CASPER Lab. It will be used to measure small impacts to the satellite caused by space debris. It will also carry a GPS receiver, which is being built at The University of Texas Radionavigation Lab, which is part of the Cockrell School of Engineering.

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