Courtesy of Cornell Alpha CubeSat

Alpha CubeSat holograms, which are embodiments of life on Earth, will be the first-ever launched into space when this project comes to fruition within a year.

March 2, 2022

Cornell Alpha CubeSat Project to Set Sail into Space

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Within the next year, Cornell’s Alpha CubeSat student team plans to deploy a small spacecraft into low earth orbit. The CubeSat, which is only slightly larger than a softball, will hitch a ride on a spacecraft bound for the International Space Station thanks to NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. Despite setbacks and delays, the team’s recent success with a weather balloon launch and hardware development has buoyed hopes for a sooner launch date.

According to Mission Manager Joshua Umansky-Castro, grad, the CubeSat launch will function as a tech demo showing off a novel light sail, which is a large sheet that uses photon pressure from the sun or laser light to propel an object without the use of onboard fuel. The Alpha CubeSat has a small light sail equipped with tiny spacecraft called ChipSats that allow it to fly independently of the CubeSat.

“No other light sails unfold and spring out like ours does. That’s a very novel type of deployment that has never been done before,” Umansky-Castro said. 

Around 25 students are on the Alpha CubeSat team, working on all aspects of the project to ensure a successful deployment. Lauren Greenhill ’24, the flight software lead, said her team is balancing a multitude of tasks, ranging from handling data communicated between the CubeSat and the ground to managing a power budget to maintain the CubeSat’s battery charge, with high pressure to succeed the first time. Because the CubeSat only has one chance to launch due to the length of time required for construction and deployment, it must function the first time.

“We want to take our time,” Greenhill said. “We only really get one shot at this, so we want to make sure we’re putting forward something that’s going to work.”

While this CubeSat will stay in Earth’s orbit, future light sail deployments could travel further, with the ultimate goal of interstellar travel. The “Alpha” in “Alpha CubeSat” reflects the team’s goal of researching technology that could be used to reach Alpha Centauri, a star system more than four light years away. 

Making a trip to Alpha Centauri is not easy — it would take thousands of years with current technology. However, the Cornell team is developing technology inspired by initiatives like Breakthrough Starshot, which hopes to send small spacecraft to Alpha Centauri within a few decades, to move light sails at 20 percent of the speed of light, cutting the trip down to 20 years.

The CubeSat will also deploy another novel technology: holograms. Inspired by the Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft, holograms can serve as a message from humanity, according to Umansky-Castro. The CubeSat will have mounted holograms on its sides, using art provided by C Bangs, a Brooklyn, New York based artist. A fish design was chosen by the team, and a female figure was chosen by a public vote, but the other designs to be sent are still undecided.

Holograms are being tested for both artistic and utilitarian purposes. In future spacecraft deployments, like ones bound for Alpha Centauri, Umansky-Castro said that holograms could be projected in a spherical shape to stabilize light sails at high speeds.

The team originally planned to launch CubeSat in May 2020. However, when the University shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all undergraduate students, who compose the majority of the team, were sent home, delaying work on the craft. Umansky-Castro stayed in Ithaca and tried to make progress on his own.

“I set up a lab in my bedroom where I was trying to build this CubeSat for six months,” Umansky-Castro said. “I just kind of learned things from the ground up.”

In an unexpectedly positive twist, pandemic-related launch delays have given the CubeSat team more time to ensure the craft’s success when it is eventually released into orbit from the ISS.

“It gave us time to notice and correct our mistakes,” Umansky-Castro said. 

After students returned to campus, the project continued to move forward despite personnel limits in labs and problems scheduling work shifts.

The project has already yielded some promising results. In October 2021, the team launched a weather balloon to test communication with the ChipSats and the ability to send commands. 

“During the launch we were able to successfully uplink a command and deploy a light sail,” Greenhill said, noting they were even able to get footage with an onboard camera.

The success of the weather balloon bodes well for the future of the CubeSat. While the team doesn’t yet have an exact date for the launch, they expect to finish the hardware component by the end of the spring semester and be ready for a launch within a year.