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Student Satellite Builders Are Making History

Extracurricular activities are an important part of college life, but students in the Satellite Design Lab are taking them to an extraterrestrial level.

Inside the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Satellite Design Laboratory you will find undergraduate and graduate students working on everything from designing software to building and testing hardware for satellites that actually get launched into space.

The students made history last month when The University of Texas at Austin became the first university to win the national University Nanosatellite Program competition twice as an individual team.

The team’s winning nanosatellite, ARMADILLO (Atmosphere Related Measurements And Detection of submILLimeter Objects), beat out nine other universities and is expected to join UT’s 2005 winner, FASTRAC (Formation Autonomy Spacecraft with Thrust, Relnav, Attitude, & Crosslink), in space sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.

At only 10 cm x 10 cm x 34 cm, ARMADILLO packs a lot of advanced technology into a lightweight design.

A GPS receiver built by UT’s Radionavigation Lab and the Piezo Dust Detector (PDD) contributed by Baylor’s CASPER lab will provide the first real-time and in situ (Latin for “in place”) measurements of a growing amount of tiny space debris that doesn’t necessarily cause large-scale collisions but remains a hidden threat as it degrades essential and expensive equipment like solar panels and optical sensors.

ARMADILLO is not the only satellite the lab is working on right now. This year, the group will launch Bevo-2, a nanosatellite featuring a first-of-its-kind integrated attitude determination and control system that will allow them to adjust the satellite’s orientation in space. Bevo-2 is part of a partnership with Texas A&M University that is funded by NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Before they even finish their current projects, they’re already dreaming up future ones, said team member and aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate Henri Kjellberg.

“We’re fishing with a great deal of lines in the water. This allows you to experience all the phases of a mission,” Kjellberg said. “Sometimes you’re doing the building phase of one and the proposal stage of another simultaneously.”

Glenn Lightsey, founder and director of the Satellite Design Lab, believes this gives students valuable perspective.

“Missions at places like NASA can take 10 years, so it used to be that you couldn’t do that in a university setting. We’ve really sped the process up to make that happen,” Lightsey said.

They may be the campus experts on satellites, but the work they do doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They get hands-on experience with basic systems engineering that can be applied to creating anything from airplanes to underwater robots, and building the satellites at full cost allows them to gain real world knowledge about budgeting.

The experience, much like many aerospace endeavors, is as rewarding as it is nerve-racking.

“There are no guarantees. So many things could go wrong with the launch vehicle that have nothing to do with your satellite, but if you accept the risks it’s very exciting,” Lightsey said. “In the end, if you are successful, you are doing something that has never been done before. Because of this, some of our students end up having more experience than the companies they go to work for.”

In fact, team leader and aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate Katherine Brumbaugh says one of the team’s biggest problems is that their students “are always getting snapped up by job offers.”

Though despite their great success, these satellite builders pride themselves on remaining down to earth.

“We live balanced lives,” Kjellberg said. “There are GPA requirements, and school always comes first. If you have a test, then you need to get out of the lab and go study.”

In the past two years, more than 50 students have contributed to the ARMADILLO satellite. As students graduate, remaining students train newcomers.

“They learn a lot by working in teams.” It’s bigger than anything one individual can do,” Lightsey said. “Ultimately they’re becoming leaders.”

Written by Hayley Fick