Handmade UT Satellite Wins National Competition

More Longhorns in space? Not quite, but close.

The University of Texas’ Satellite Design Lab has taken first place in the national University Nanosatellite Program competition for the design and creation of a satellite no bigger than a loaf of bread. The satellite, dubbed ARMADILLO, will be launched into space aboard a NASA rocket by 2015.

The University Nanosatellite Program competition chooses 10 universities to design a satellite and build it from scratch over a two-year period. The competition is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force, and the individual projects are funded by a research grant.

The Satellite Design Lab is the first team to win the event twice. In 2005, the lab earned top honors for their FASTRAC entry, a pair of interacting nanosatellites that have been in space since 2010.

According to Glenn Lightsey, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and head of the Satellite Design Lab, space industry technology has grown exponentially since their FASTRAC design won the contest in 2005. “The FASTRAC was hugely innovative for its time, but ARMADILLO is half its size and is the much more capable satellite,” Lightsey says.

Nanosatellite technology is rapidly expanding the boundaries of space exploration by increasing cost efficiency in getting to space. “We can make spacecraft much smaller and much cheaper now,” Lightsey says. “You will see companies able to do things in space that may not have even been profitable before.”

Lightsey believes that nanosatellites, which are already used for weather surveillance, communications, and debris detection, have vast potential. “Maybe 10, 20 years from now, we will have nanosatellites working together to build structures in space,” Lightsey says.

ARMADILLO was created by Lightsey’s team of graduate and undergraduate students. Once in orbit, the 10 cm x 10 cm x 34 cm satellite is intended to measure space debris, random bits of natural and man-made space junk that present enormous operational hazards to spacecraft.

The ARMADILLO satellite’s victory is a step in the right direction, but Lightsey says the satellite still has a long way to go before it orbits Earth. The award includes a $55,000 grant per year, and the Satellite Design Lab will spend the next two years outfitting the ARMADILLO for flight. Even then, it’s a risky business—collisions with stray debris or an unexpected rocket explosion are just two factors that could bring the project to a halt.

But Lightsey and his team remain optimistic. “That’s part of the space business, you have to accept the risks,” he says. “There are no guarantees.”

Photo courtesy UT Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics via Flickr.


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