History of Alpha CubeSat

Alpha CubeSat is seven years in the making!

2016: The early days, from “CayugaSat” to “Starshot Alpha”

The Alpha CubeSat project began with Isabelle Dawson, a high schooler based in the local Ithaca area. Inspired by a lecture from Cornell Mechanical Engineering Professor Mason Peck, Dawson put together a group of her classmates to take part in an international engineering competition focused on CubeSats.

After their “CayugaSat” became one of the winners in 2016, Dawson joined forces with engineering students at Cornell and mentors such as Andy Filo. In one whirlwind summer, the “Starshot Ten” team made great strides under Prof. Peck, completing three sides of solar panels. But there was still seven years of work remaining…

2016 - 2019

After the “Starshot Ten” summer, Alpha CubeSat made slow and steady progress.

We started to develop our Attitude Control Systems, which help control the orientation of the spacecraft (harder than you might think in microgravity)! We took on new members for flight software and for the development of our radio station software on the ground.

Holographic art entered the picture, our ChipSats underwent a major upgrade from the green “Sprite” generation to the orange “Monarchs,” and our sail became retroreflective!

Despite these improvements, the full prototype CubeSat remained unfinished. Circuit boards were designed but not yet thoroughly tested. In the meantime, we applied to NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, and in spring of 2019 we won a slot!

Our current Program Manager, Josh Umansky-Castro, joined the Alpha CubeSat team that summer to begin the tedious paperwork process of getting the launch approved. But he was destined for more than paperwork, and we were all destined for something very big in the year 2020.

2020-2021: The COVID Years

The world shut down, but Josh brought as much lab equipment he could to his house and started working as a one-man band. Over the course of five months, Josh went from being the paperwork guy to being the design guy, the code guy, and the everything guy.

Despite the pandemic, progress on Alpha CubeSat plodded on, both from the confines of home and in the lab, donned with masks. Very soon, it was no longer just Josh—our team began to grow again, and we took on new subteam leads such as Andy Tan, Lauren Greenhill, Eleanor Glenn, and Gillis Lowry.

During 2021, the Alpha CubeSat team redesigned the entire circuit, and made a complete and fully functional CubeSat EDU (Engineering Development Unit—a functional prototype, in this case largely thanks to Andy)! After that, we made half of the final version of the CubeSat, fixed the solar flight circuit, and completed multiple high-altitude balloon launch experiments.

2022-2024: The Home Stretch

In 2022, we finally completed the construction of our CubeSat! From there, we entered a period of intensive ChipSat and CubeSat testing with the help of Integration and Testing team lead Millie Schwartz.

Our publicity team lead Gillis Lowry was hard at work presenting our holograms to Bill Nye and creating a museum exhibit featuring Alpha CubeSat. The exhibit opened on February 16th, 2023, at New York’s Intrepid Museum, adjacent to the famous Space Shuttle Enterprise. “Postcards From Earth: Holograms on an Interstellar Journey” inspired audiences to ponder whether we’re alone in the universe, and what the messages we might send to any aliens that be.

Throughout the exhibit’s eight-month lifespan, over two thousand visitors voted on the final hologram to include onboard Alpha. The people have decided: a sleeping cat shall be our message to the universe, along with a female face, a male face, a moth, and a fish.

In the 2023-24 school year, we’re putting the finishing touches on our software and hardware, and are rapidly approaching the finale of Alpha CubeSat.

The Future

Alpha CubeSat’s current earliest launch date is September 2024. As always, our launch date depends on upcoming spacecraft testing and software debugging.

It’s a long journey from concept to CubeSat, especially for a spacecraft beholden to academic schedules. But being student-built means that hundreds of young people have had the opportunity to work on a real spacecraft!

Regardless of what happens after launch, we couldn’t be more grateful for the experience we’ve shared.



124 Hoy Rd, 450 Upson Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853

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