Video: Spacecraft destined for orbit following balloon test

By: Syl Kacapyr

Following a successful weather balloon test of their spacecraft electronics, Cornell students have begun building the final version of Alpha CubeSat – a small satellite that will carry a first-of-its-kind light sail, hologram-embossed solar panels and several other new techniques for deep-space travel.


For the past four years, a team of mostly engineering students has been designing and testing various subsystems and prototypes of Alpha CubeSat, which NASA has agreed to take into low-Earth orbit via a SpaceX rocket and deployment from the International Space Station. The launch date is to be determined.

With its 3D-printed structure, the spacecraft uses a RockBlock Iridium modem for decentralized communication and derives energy from solar panels. The panels are embossed with holograms of people, animals and DNA, reminiscent of the Voyager Golden Record, which launched into space in 1977 carrying audio and images portraying life and culture on Earth. But unlike the Golden Record – an effort led by the late Cornellian Carl Sagan – the holograms won’t add to the spacecraft’s payload.

hologram embossed solar panel
An example of the hologram embossed solar panels that will be used by Alpha CubeSat.

The highlight of Alpha CubeSat is its deployable, free-flying light sail – a poster-size sheet of polycarbonate that hosts small ChipSats capable of transmitting GPS data to a ground station located on the roof of Rhodes Hall. Alpha CubeSat will be the first spacecraft to incorporate a retroreflective sail, and the first to use holograms.

“Alpha will demonstrate the first flight of a light sail equipped with gram-scale spacecraft,” said Joshua Umansky-Castro, an aerospace engineering doctoral student and team lead for the Alpha CubeSat. “We already have ideas on how to extend the capabilities of these technologies to interplanetary missions, and one day initiatives such as Breakthrough Starshot may even fly such sails to Alpha Centauri.”

light sail
Image of a polycarbonate light sail with four Monarch ChipSats for tracking and orientation.

Umansky-Castro and team members are now moving into the flight-assembly phase of the spacecraft’s build following a weather balloon test of a prototype in October. A payload was sent 30 kilometers above Earth to test its communication system and light sail deployment, thanks to the help of CIT systems engineering Michael Hojnowski and the Cornell Amateur Radio Club, which assisted with the launch.

“It was a great test of our satellite and we were able to track the location of our payload as well as send the command to deploy the light sail,” said Gillis Lowry ’24, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences and publicity lead for Alpha CubeSat. “It’s a long journey from concept to CubeSat, but our balloon launch was a major step toward real advances in spaceflight and even long-distance light powered missions to the stars.”

Following the balloon test, the Alpha CubeSat received an external review by spacecraft experts and the student team continued analyzing data through winter break. They will now spend the spring semester building the version of Alpha CubeSat that will launch into space.

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