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What This Ten Pound Satellite Can Accomplish Will Surprise You

Luke Quinton/KUT News

How big is a satellite? Well, that depends. The University of Texas’s Satellite Design Lab just won a competition for its “cube satellite.” So just how small is a cube?

“The dimensions of the spacecraft are essentially the size of a loaf of bread,” said Katharine Brumbaugh, a Ph.D. student at the satellite lab. Her team’s cube satellite, Armadillo, just won a competition run by the Air Force, beating out nine other universities in the “cubesat” category.

But it’s not just a student project. Next year, the 10-pound metal box will be shot into space, piggybacking on a much bigger rocket. And it has a real mission.

“We can track the larger debris particles from the Earth, but you can’t track particles that are smaller than, say, a grapefruit size,” Brumbaugh said.

So Armadillo will collect space dust and see what’s out there. Maybe the dust is slowly wearing down solar panels or the sensors of spacecraft already in orbit. Armadillo will send back that data in real time.

“It’s pretty cool that you’re holding the structure of your satellite and you’re like, ‘man, there is a 100 percent chance that this piece of metal is actually going into space,” said Travis Imken, one of the lab’s other student leaders. His prime responsibility is another cube satellite, Bevo Two, which will launch on a Space-X flight next year.

Bevo Two will test whether two little satellites in orbit could meet up. It will be springing out of a Texas A&M satellite -- literally using a spring. It will drift away from the satellite, then see if their signals can reunite at 17,000 miles an hour.

“When I started, which wasn’t that long ago, it was really an exclusive club,” said Glenn Lightsey, the professor who runs the lab. “I mean, you had to work at NASA, you had to have many years of job experience or work at one of the very big aerospace corporations, to have a chance of building something that would be launched into space.”

So what’s changed? Electronics and computer parts got cheaper. Armadillo uses the same processor as the little TVs on airplane seats. It costs a couple of hundred bucks. And communicating with spacecraft? Well, Armadillo uses ham radio, the kind you buy at RadioShack. So a process that used to cost millions of dollars now costs a few hundred thousand, and most of that is labor.

“Satellites that have been used to study debris, historically, were much larger,” Lightsey said. “There was a satellite called Long Duration Exposure Facility, and it literally was the size of a car.”

The amazing thing, Lightsey said, is that cube satellites aren’t just smaller.

“Bevo Two and Armadillo are the most sophisticated satellites in this size category that really have ever flown before,” he said. “We’re actually collecting, in some ways, more sophisticated information with a smaller device.”

Unlike its ancestors, which could only reflect signals from Earth, Armadillo sends out information of its own. But rocket science is never simple. There is still the ghost of Bevo One. It was attached to another Texas A&M satellite, and when they separated, neither one deployed. It was never heard from again.

So what about Bevo Two?

“It will turn on. It can’t not turn on,” Imken said.

We’ll find out next year.

I'm a freelance writer for the Austin American Statesman and others.
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