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Published on May 14, 2024
University of Chicago Undergrads' Satellite Project Gets NASA Nod, Aiming for 2026 LaunchSource: Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Space, the final frontier, is about to get personal for a crew of University of Chicago undergrads, with NASA giving the green light for their satellite project. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the student-built CubeSat, roughly the size of a paper towel roll, is scheduled for a 2026 launch as part of NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, a program that's been helping students send their projects to space since 2010.

The satellite, known as PULSE-A (Polarization modUlated Laser Satellite Experiment), outpaces traditional radio frequency with its faster, more secure laser transmission technology, which makes space-to-ground operations more difficult to intercept and jam, with the UChicago team's design aimed at sending data from space to an optical ground station, just outside Chicago; using left- and right-handed polarization to encode data a statement obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed. The team of more than 60 students, which started as a modest group of eight, initially submitted their proposal to NASA in November, receiving the thumbs up by March, now they're gearing up to turn their theoretical work into a space-bound reality.

But these aspiring space explorers are working on more than just the hardware; they're looking to fill the gap in the university's space industry programming, as the project's incoming chief engineer, Seth Knights, told the Chicago Sun-Times, adding the project provided unique opportunities "to sort of jump in." The project's approval has been a major validation for the team, confirming they were on the right track, doing good work.

The brainchild of Lauren Ayala, a fourth-year in engineering, this CubeSat project is a testament to student initiative and the accessibility of contemporary space endeavors, Ayala told the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering's news site, but though she'll have graduated by the time PULSE-A launches, she's stoked about the groundbreaking work already underway. The team is now on a countdown to craft their satellite, after which NASA takes over to execute the launch, covering the cost, but leaving the students the hefty task of fabrication; it's a crucial learning curve, but as Outreach Lead James Passmore said, "It's also very fun."

Indeed, the PULSE-A project is another star in the university's budding aerospace engineering presence, with the team looking forward to seeing their handiwork bolted onto whirring devices and hurled into the cosmos in the late summer of 2026. With the success of this project, not only does the boundary of space become within reach, but the stars themselves seem a mere laser beam away.