Columbians Reach for the Final Frontier

Apr 13 2018 | By Jesse Adams | Image/Photo: Millen Anand

In just five semesters since launching the Columbia Space Initiative, students have invented futuristic technologies, won NASA competitions, and sent craft up to the stratosphere, all to help humanity explore the cosmos.

To celebrate a high-flying year of achievements and reach out to more earthbound peers, the group set down at Lerner Hall for the second annual Spaceposium on March 26, showcasing exciting progress across a range of extraordinarily extracurricular missions.

“The last year has been hugely productive both in our technical missions and our goal of helping foster the space community at Columbia and more broadly in New York,” said CSI co-president Millen Anand ’20, who noted that the organization has grown to over 80 members and earned nearly 60% of its funding this year from outside grants and awards.

Much of that funding comes from the group’s impressive track record competing in NASA-sponsored challenges. Several CSI teams are currently making serious headway in such projects, designed to address looming problems in space exploration.

ALMA hybrid propulsion system - drawing
The ALMA hybrid propulsion system designed by Millen Anand ’20, Aaron Pickard ‘20GS/JTS, and Gianluca Rago ’21 is designed to transport 50 metric tons from cislunar space to Mars orbit and back again.

A group led by Anand, Aaron Pickard ‘20GS/JTS, and Gianluca Rago ’21 is designing a hybrid propulsion system capable of transporting 50 metric tons to an elliptical Mars orbit and back, while a team led by Luke D’Cruz ’21 and Bret Silverstein ’21 is building the Lion Piercer II, a multifunctional drill for collecting water from ice deposits beneath the Martian surface.

“We’re working on acquiring specific parts and integrating components to work together as a cohesive unit,” Silverstein said. “Once the system is fully built, we’ll use an Arduino to program it to run without any input from humans.”

For a NASA competition challenging undergraduates to design tools for an asteroid retrieval mission, a team led by Chris Fryer ’19 and Tejit Pabari ’21 is developing the Lion Cutter, a device for slicing zip ties—used ubiquitously in space—that retains stray cuttings before they can drift away and damage delicate equipment. The group will test their creation this May at Houston’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

Some of CSI’s projects are taking flight in other ways. After winning first place at NASA’s University Aeronautics Design Challenge last year, the Aero Design team is developing an optimized model of a drone for navigating close quarters and urban delivery. Under team leaders Olivia Chow ’20 and Malik Drabla ’20, the group, which has been programming a remote interface and in-flight predictive capabilities, will submit a research paper this summer.

The Cubesat team is talking to faculty about joint research possibilities for a device underdevelopment. The team, led by Daniel Jeong ’20, Samuel Morgan ’21, and Alexander Tuchler ’21, used a $10,000 grant from the NASA New York Space Grant Consortium to purchase an ESAT, a prototype model of the nanosatellite they hope to put into orbit.


The high altitude balloon team led by Jake Lee ’19 plans to launch a rocket from the edge of space this spring.

The high altitude balloon team has been working on launching a rocket from the edge of space, via a weather balloon capable of hitting 70,000 feet. They hope to come back with some new science and a little art.

“We’re interested in the performance of the rocket in an environment with so little air, both in terms of air friction and fuel oxidation,” said mission director Jake Lee ’19. “We’re also excited to record the event and see the model rocket launch with a beautiful view of Earth in the background.”

CSI’s rocketry team, led by Simon Anuszczyk ’19 and Gabriel Brown ’20CC, is developing a hybrid engine that will use nitrous oxide and a paraffin wax blend as fuel. Hybrids, which allow for adjusting thrust output, are potentially safer and more versatile than conventional rockets. The group will represent Columbia this June at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition at Spaceport America in New Mexico, aiming to send a 60 lb rocket up 10,000 feet.

Closer to home, CSI has been busy inspiring the next generation, volunteering at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and sharing aerospace engineering at disadvantaged middle schools in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. On campus, they’ve introduced visiting high schoolers to concepts like propulsion and orbital mechanics and co-hosted the Extreme Engineering lecture series with their adviser, Professor and former astronaut Mike Massimino, welcoming NASA veterans like Peggy Whitson and Charlie Duke to campus. They also co-hosted a panel on the commercial space industry at this year’s StartupColumbia festival and co-organized the inaugural Inter-Ivy Space Coalition Conference at Yale this spring.

In the year ahead, CSI is aiming even higher—planning to place a small payload aboard a Blue Origin spaceflight in 2019 and to add a mission focusing on algorithmic analysis of satellite images.

“CSI is all about the pursuit of knowledge in near-space, space, and beyond,” said CSI co-president Leena Chen ’19BRN. “The Spaceposium was a great opportunity to celebrate all of our hard work and reach out to the rest of the Columbia community who might not already be interested in aerospace.”

The afternoon was organized in concert with arts & astro, an exhibition of space-inspired art, music, and research from Blueshift, Columbia University’s astronomy club.