Columbia Students Conquering Space in Their Spare Time

Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic has been appointed University Professor, Columbia University's highest academic honor.
Columbia University mascot Roaree takes in the 100,000-foot view from a high-altitude balloon launched by members of the Columbia Space Initiative.
—Photo courtesy of Columbia Space Initiative

From launching rockets, balloons, and satellites to designing machines for collecting samples from other worlds, space enthusiasts at Columbia University are having a blast exploring the final frontier.

Rising engineers, astrophysicists, and stargazers from across the university convened at Lerner Hall March 31 for CU in Space, a showcase of how interdisciplinary student groups are applying diverse skill sets to boundless challenges. The student-run Columbia Space Initiative (CSI) highlighted hardware and designs from student teams who conquer space in their spare time, while the Columbia astronomy club, BlueShift, hosted an exhibition of astrophysics research and student artwork.

Several student groups presented plans for sending payloads up high, including CSI teams working with rockets, high-altitude balloons, and CubeSat nanosatellites. The rocket group hopes to launch a 7-footer with a solid fuel engine from Long Island this semester that will carry digital equipment to collect data about a mile up. The high-altitude balloon team aims to send up a cloud chamber of alcohol vapor this fall in which to capture streaks of high-energy subatomic particles. Meanwhile, the CubeSat group is working on building a cubical nanosatellite, measuring just 10 centimeters across, to launch into low Earth orbit with scientific equipment and means of communicating with the ground.

“CubeSats have rapidly become a key method for performing scientific research and technical demonstrations in various orbits around Earth,” said mission director Kyle Hughes ’18, a computer science major. “Our team’s biggest accomplishment so far has been earning NASA/New York Space Grant funding for our proposal, and we’re in the process of acquiring more hardware this semester and over the summer.”

Jorge Orbay ‘17 briefs divers at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab before CSI’s first test of the Lion Claw.
—Photo courtesy of Columbia Space Initiative

So promising are the projects of the Columbia Space Initiative that the students have been able to earn roughly 70 percent of their funding from awards and grants from NASA and other sources. They receive additional university support for much of the rest of their extracurricular equipment and research—the group was recently honored with the Zvi Galil Award for Improvement in Engineering Student Life—plus guidance from former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, a professor of professional practice in mechanical engineering at Columbia, who is one of their faculty advisors.

Two CSI groups are currently competing in the RASC-AL program from NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace, which encourages students to find ways for humans to thrive beyond Earth. Last year’s team made the RASC-AL finals for a proposal to explore Deimos, one of Mars’s moons. One of this year’s projects, the LEO Lion, is a design for a habitable module for low Earth orbit and travel to Mars that could potentially replace the International Space Station; the team will travel to Cape Canaveral this summer to compete in the finals. The other project, the Lion Piercer, is a Martian subsurface water extraction system that cuts and carries cyclindrical cores of ice. The group recently submitted its mid-project review, including a video showing their drill prototype in action.

CSI’s Micro-g team is also working on acquiring subsurface samples. Their “Lion Claw” project for anchoring to asteroids made it all the way to NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab last year for successful testing. They recently received the parts they need for collecting sand and sandstone and plan to test their prototype this summer at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab alongside teams from 29 other universities.

Additionally, members of the Columbia Robotics Club talked about their work programming intelligent drones to corral herds of Roomba robot vacuums, while the Columbia chapter of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) discussed dividing into two teams to build electronically controlled miniature planes from scratch that will fly in competition this spring.

“CU in Space was a chance for Columbia students who are passionate about space, whether writers, computer scientists, biologists, or engineers, to show the whole university how much we’re capable of,” said CSI co-president Leon Kim ’19, a mechanical engineering major. “There’s an amazing community of students here dreaming of space exploration and pushing the boundaries of human reach, and we’ve got very big plans for the future.”

—By Jesse Adams

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