NASA green lights University of Chicago undergraduate satellite project

A satellite the size of a paper towel roll and designed by University of Chicago undergraduates will be launched into space by NASA in 2026.

The project was one of 10 selected by NASA from universities across the country as part of the CubeSat Launch Initiative, which allows students to send small cube-shaped satellites on upcoming launches.

Engineering fourth-year Lauren Ayala started the project a year and a half ago. She’ll graduate before seeing it to completion, but she said she’s excited for the project to launch.

“Everybody was very, very excited,” Ayala said. “We kind of all had this realization of like, ‘Oh, we’ve been working on this very theoretical design for the last six months, which has been a lot of fun, but now we actually have to deliver on that.’”

While involved in another student group focused on space exploration, Ayala decided to start up the CubeSat project because of its accessibility for students: If NASA accepts a project for the initiative, it will fund the satellite’s launch.

“If you fund and design a satellite, which is easier said than done, of course, they’ll take care of the final step,” Ayala said.

The team started off small with about eight people regularly contributing, although it has since grown to more than 60 students and plans to keep bringing on more people.

Seth Knights, a second-year in physics, who will be the project’s chief engineer starting this summer, said the university doesn’t have a lot of programming relevant to the space industry, so working on this project provided unique opportunities.

“All of us as students really wanted something to fill that gap,” Knights said. “It was a really good place to sort of jump in.”

The group submitted its proposal to NASA in November and received approval in March. Now, the students are working with NASA mission managers to develop and construct the satellite.

The 10x10x23-centimeter CubeSat will transmit data from space to a ground station outside Chicago by using a laser.

“Normally, satellites will use radio frequency to transmit data, which is pretty good, but lasers are a little bit faster, a little bit more secure,” Ayala said. “You’re able to send more data quickly.”

NASA mission manager Norman Phelps said in an email that the team selects projects “with an educational component that can also benefit the agency in better understanding education, science, exploration and technology.”

Logan Hanssler, a second-year in astrophysics who will lead the project after Ayala graduates, said NASA’s approval is creating space for aerospace engineering work at the university.

“We have actually been cemented at the university and are continuing to expand our presence,” Hanssler said.

Knights added that the project’s approval is confirmation that they are on the right track and are doing good work.

“Being accepted by NASA, it just makes everything a lot more validating,” Knights said.

The project is expected to launch in 2026.

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