NASA selects UChicago undergraduates’ proposal to build a ‘nano-satellite’

Student-designed CubeSat aims to increase speed, security of space-to-ground communications

A team of more than 60 UChicago undergraduates is building a tiny satellite that will be launched into orbit courtesy of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. 

While large satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope are the size of a bus and even “SmallSats” are the size of a refrigerator, CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that can be as tiny as a 10-centimeter cube (roughly four inches). 

But big science can come from these small devices. The UChicago team’s CubeSat aims to make space-to-ground operations more difficult to intercept and jam, while increasing the speed of communications. 

“The project that we settled on was building a 10 megabit-per-second space-to-earth laser downlink,” said project director Lauren Ayala, a fourth-year student majoring in molecular engineering and astrophysics. “We want to take a signal on the satellite and then send it to an optical ground station on the Earth.” 

The satellite, named PULSE-A (for Polarization modUlated Laser Satellite Experiment), was designed and will be built by a group of University of Chicago undergraduates from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Physics Department, the Computer Science Department and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics

Theirs was one of 10 projects from universities across the country selected in the most recent round of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. Since its inception in 2010, the program has launched more than 150 small research satellites into orbit, helping student-led projects explore the stars. 

“We are constantly sending information to space with our phones. Space has become so accessible,” said Juan Ignacio Prieto, a first-year majoring in physics and philosophy and the head of the optical ground station that will receive PULSE-A’s communications. “But there's something different about thinking how something you design and build is going to space.”

‘We have two and a half years’

In November, the students submitted an 80-page proposal to NASA outlining their plans for a 10x10x23 centimeter CubeSat capable of tackling this challenge in a way that’s both space-efficient and, by satellite standards, inexpensive. In March, NASA selected their project to be launched.

“We have two and a half years to take the design that we've been working on last year and fabricate it ourselves. And then we hand it over to NASA,” Ayala said. 

NASA will only cover the cost of the launch. The team must build it on their own.  

Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Prof. Tian Zhong lent the team a portion of an optical table on which to fabricate the device. Other faculty have pledged to help with system requirement reviews and other advisement needed for such a massive project, the last bits of which must be done in a cleanroom. 

For the students, it will be an intense and time-consuming learning process. 

“It's also very fun,” said PULSE-A Outreach Lead James Passmore, a second-year student. “I like to describe it as baking instructions. We spent the last year and a half writing the instructions. Now it’s time to bake the cake.” 

A laser in space

The satellite will start with a laser in space that is modulated to encode data with left- and right-handed polarization. The data will travel 800 km to an optical ground station back on Earth.  

Radio frequency has long been the typical approach for communications between earth and satellites; the UChicago team opted for lasers in part because of the additional security needed for a communications satellite, Ayala said. 

“With lasers, you're dealing with more directionality and you finish with less divergence. This means it's a lot harder for people to listen and break your encryption,” she said. “Also, it's a faster means of communication.” 

UChicago’s PULSE-A project is expected to launch in late summer 2026. 

Although the launch location won’t be announced until 8-12 months prior to launch, many past CubeSat projects have launched from the International Space Station. 

“I had never seen them launch satellites off the ISS,” said Passmore. “I just saw it on my Instagram feed the other day and I thought, ‘It reminds me of Star Wars.’” 

—Adapted from an article published by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.