Ellie Park, Photography Editor

After a decade-long project, the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association, or YUAA, is gearing up to launch a satellite into outer space in the coming year.

Through their CubeSat project, YUAA aims to send a device called a cosmic ray detector aboard a NASA rocket into orbit around the Earth. Though the initiative began in 2015, it has faced delays — most recently, one of their computers catching fire — which has bumped their target completion date from winter 2024 to 2025. 

Still, CubeSat co-leads Rome Thorstenson ’25 and Matilda Vary ’25 are hopeful that the decade-long effort will soon bear fruit. Since the program’s start, two full “generations” of students have graduated, Thorstenson said. When he joined the group as a first year, he was brand new to the field. 

“It’s been a really rewarding experience to go from complete beginner… to then helping others learn those skills,” Thorstenson said. “It’s really cool to work on code that will be run in space, on a satellite — to just take a moment to sit back and appreciate that.” 

CubeSats are a class of cost-efficient, miniature cube-shaped satellites: the standard dimensions are 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. The Yale CubeSat will carry a cosmic ray detector, also being built by the team, which will gather data on particles streaming into Earth’s atmosphere from the sun and distant galaxies. 

To fund their space-bound project, CubeSat receives funding from YUAA, which in turn received $13,000 from the School of Engineering & Applied Science this year to distribute across all four of YUAA’s projects — CubeSat included. The project also receives funding from a variety of sponsors, including the Yale Science and Engineering Association and the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium. 

Once finished, the satellite will be handed off to NASA and then put on a rocket. The team estimates that it should remain in orbit for roughly nine months. 

Getting involved in CubeSat doesn’t require any background in aerospace. As a result, onboarding — in which recruits are taught what they need to know to contribute effectively — is extensive and critical, said Vary, who heads the mechanical division of the project. 

But as a student group that meets on Saturdays, learning to build a satellite is still largely informal. For Ava Schwarz ’27, who recently joined the hardware team designing the cosmic ray detector, older mentors are a key part of the learning process. 

“A very significant part of the process is learning from older students who are able to take the knowledge that they’ve [gained] through trial and error and teach it to you,” said Schwarz. 

According to Thorstenson, the data gathered by the cosmic ray detector could help other satellites avoid hazards. For example, in a region above the Atlantic Ocean called the South Atlantic Anomaly, he explained, intense magnetic radiation can interfere with electrical equipment on board satellites. 

As the CubeSat satellite spirals around the planet and passes through those high-risk regions, the team plans to collect data on where cosmic radiation is most intense — and most dangerous. They don’t, however, yet have a plan to send their data to partner organizations. 

“A bunch of cosmic rays flying around can cause bit-flips [and] other problems,” said Thorstenson. “So it’s very useful to know where the danger zones are.” 

For Vary, the CubeSat project’s purpose is more than just scientific. While the data the cosmic ray detector will collect is scientifically important, she said she believes that launching a Yale-created satellite could be a milestone for the University’s engineering community. 

“I think it’s important to realize [that] the scientific object of this satellite is very interesting and will provide data that hasn’t necessarily been provided before, but … really, the idea of this is to get a Yale-created satellite into space [and] prove that a not-so-large engineering program is capable of doing this,” Vary said. 

However, the initiative has faced technical issues, which have delayed the expected launch date by nearly a year. 

Right before the team left for winter break, the onboard computer caught fire, Vary said. “That’s a huge component and essentially is like the brain of our operation,” Vary said. 

While she said that the project was probably not on track to finish this December, it was likely that the CubeSat project would have been completed by this coming June. But, due to the onboard computer’s combustion, she estimated that the team was set back by at least a semester. 

Fires are not the only obstacle that the CubeSat team has faced. Unlike other university CubeSat teams, the Yale team challenged themselves to code all the system’s software from scratch, without downloading any pre-written software packages, Thorstenson said. 

While Thorstenson highlighted the team’s bottom-up approach to developing the system’s software as a unique hallmark of the program, the labor-intensive approach has created extra burdens for the software team. 

“There’s a lot of software to write,” Vary added. 

To address those software challenges, the CubeSat project partnered with the Yale Computer Society to recruit developers and volunteers among Yale programmers. As a result, they aim to achieve a hand-off to NASA as soon as possible.

Despite setbacks, Schwarz pointed out that the CubeSat project gives students vital hands-on experience in the field of aerospace engineering. 

“I think it’s a very valuable opportunity for engineering majors and majors in other disciplines interested in getting a tangible, real-life application of the stuff that they learn in class,” she said. “It’s also a really great preparation for getting a real job in one of these fields because you learn how to collaborate not only with people who do the same thing as you but with people who work on other parts of the project.” 

Though their anticipated launch date is still on the horizon, the culmination of ten years of work has sparked excitement among the CubeSat team, Schwarz added. She anticipates that completing the project and watching it fly into space will be “intensely tangible.” 

“All of us would love nothing more than to see a launch,” Schwarz said. “The project is super engaging… but it’s made even greater by the fact that you know that everything you touch will one day see outer space.” 

The CubeSat team conducted a “cold test” of the satellite at the Wright Lab in 2022.