Small Satellite Design and Testing Laboratory

Faculty Researchers Location Phone Website
Michael Lembeck,
Gary Swenson,
Zach Putnam
206K, 206H, 209F Talbot Lab 217-300-6272  


This laboratory is the University of Illinois’ premier space design and testing workspace. This facility includes the necessary equipment for all stages of satellite mission life, from the early conceptual design, through prototyping, assembly integration and testing of flight hardware, and mission operations. The laboratory is equipped with a Clean Room, Thermal Vacuum Chamber, Vacuum Oven, Sun Simulator, Earth Orbital Magnetic Simulator, and a range of mechanical and electrical diagnostic equipment. It has been updated with proper static control surfaces, and includes multiple forms of rapid prototyping, design, and simulation capabilities. It also acts as an operation center when satellites are in orbit. In the next two years, this facility is set to expand into new laboratory space to be built as an extension to Talbot Laboratory. At the moment, this lab is responsible for five active spacecraft flight programs, which will be delivered for launch in 2018. Funding has typically come from NASA, NSF and AFRL.

Facility and Equipment Description

Thermal Vacuum Chamber

The thermal vacuum chamber enables spacecraft and space systems to be tested in a simulated space environment. It is capable of achieving vacuum levels as low as 1e-10 Torr, and temperatures as cold as -100C. The thermal vacuum chamber is equipped with a residual gas analyzer to assist with determination of outgassing.

Thermal Vacuum Chamber

Vacuum Oven

The vacuum oven is connected to a roughing pump, and can achieve temperatures as hot as 250C, and pressures as low as 400 mTorr. The vacuum oven is used primarily for spacecraft bake-out, but can also be used for adhesive preparation and vacuum curing.

Moment of Inertia Measurement Device

Developed by our students, the Moment of Inertia Measurement Device is capable of determining the inertia about the orthogonal body axes of a satellite or piece of hardware. It uses optically tracked targets and known initial plate inertia to calculate the effective change caused by the object being measured.

Moment of Inertia Calculation Device

Center of Gravity Calculation Device

This device calculates the two-dimensional center of gravity of an object placed upon it.  It is used typically to find the center of gravity of satellites and their subsystems.  By taking three measurements, one for each orthogonal pair of directions, the full 3D location of the center of gravity can be determined.

center of gravity device

Sun Simulator

The sun simulator can produce both AM0 and AM1.5 solar spectrum with a 98% accuracy across all wavelengths. Further, it can adjust the sun intensity from about 0.8 to 1.2 AU. Its primary use is to test and calibrate solar panels, but it can be used to test individual solar cells and entire power systems. This equipment is fairly critical in the testing chain for most spacecraft, to ensure that they will generate power in space.

solar simulator

Helmholz Cage

The “HC3” 3-axis Helmholtz cage is capable of reproducing the Earth’s magnetic field at any altitude of low orbit. It has six magnetic coils attached to a custom, student-designed power supply. This equipment is used for calibration of magnetometers, testing of magnetic torque coils, and all-up attitude determination and control testing. It can be fitted with an air bearing for additional fidelity of motion.

Helmholz cage 3 axis

Rapid Prototyping

The lab is home to two forms of rapid prototyping: the X-Carve automated CNC machine, and a pair of Form 2 SLA printers. These allow students in the lab to construct satellite parts and fixtures for testing.

Form 2 SLAX-Carve automated CNC machine

Research Highlights


Lower Atmosphere/Ionosphere Coupling Experiment

The Lower Atmosphere/Ionosphere Coupling Experiment (LAICE) is a 6U CubeSat developed by the University of Illinois and Virginia Tech, funded by NSF. This mission seeks to develop correlations between atmospheric air glow events with in-situ sensed chemical changes, using a combination of photomultipliers, a retarding potential analyzer, and neutral and ion density measurements. LAICE is expected to launch in Spring 2018.


CubeSail is a pair of 1.5U CubeSats which launch docked at a 3U. Upon reaching space, they separate and deploy a 250 m long solar sail. This mission will demonstrate the solar sail deployment technology, in preparation for future I-Sail and UltraSail missions. CubeSail is currently slated to launch on March 1st, 2018.


rendering of CAPSat

CAPSat is the first of three Undergraduate Student Instrumentation Program (USIP) satellites being developed in this lab. CAPSat is a 3U CubeSat built in partnership with the Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Physics Departments. CAPSat demonstrates three technologies to raise their technology readiness level.  First, an active cooling system will demonstrate on-demand system temperature reduction. Second, strain actuated solar arrays will demonstrate fine control pointing and spacecraft jitter reduction.  Finally, the annealing payload will evaluate various photosensor reset technologies to compensate for radiation damage. CAPSat is slated for launch in early fall 2018.


rendering of satellite over Earth

The Student Aerothermal Spectrometer Satellite of Illinois and Indiana (SASSI2) is a small satellite mission scheduled to be flown in 2018. This mission is being developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in partnership with Purdue University as a part of the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) Undergraduate Student Instrument Program (USIP). The goal of the mission is to characterize the flow field and radiation generated by the diffuse bow shock formed during high-speed flight through the upper atmosphere. Optical spectrographic measurements of the radiation will be taken to provide data for fundamental flow, radiation, and materials modelling, resulting in improved prediction of the aerothermodynamic environment encountered by bodies during atmospheric entry.



The SpaceICE Mission aims to investigate the influence of gravity during directional solidification for the purpose of improving terrestrially-based materials fabricated using the freeze-casting tech-nique. The scientific payload consists of two (2) aqueous particle suspension samples and one (1) aqueous solution sample which will be repeatedly solidified (and melted) over the course of the mission. Scientific instrumentation includes: (i) cameras for imaging the solidification process and (2) thermocouples for in-situ temperature data acquisition during solidification. Data products in-clude images and temperature data.

Spacecraft Active Cooling Thermal System

student in lab with wires

Small spacecraft (especially CubeSats) are faced with significant thermal challenges as they get bigger. Historically, spacecraft less than 20 kg used passive cooling, however this is no longer keeping up as smaller, higher powered technology can fit in less volume and consume less mass.  Multiple currently planned missions for small satellites to the moon are reporting to face overheat conditions and need to power cycling their communication systems, computers, and thrusters. The Spacecraft Active Cooling Thermal System is an attempt to address this need; by circulating a fluid through a microvascular radiator panel, the system can supply on-demand cooling.  As such, the spacecraft can dumb tens of Watts of heat when needed, but can stop dumping heat when running cold, and therefore avoid freezing by retaining internal heat.