Mission to space: College student from Buffalo Grove designing satellite for NASA launch

A rendering shows the satellite students from University of Chicago, among them Stevenson High School graduate Logan Hanssler, are designing for a 2026 NASA launch. The satellite will use lasers, instead of radio waves, to send signals back to earth. Courtesy of PULSE-A

If sometime in the future you’re able to communicate over your devices faster and with greater security, you may have a 19-year-old from Buffalo Grove to thank.

Logan Hanssler, a Stevenson High School graduate now studying molecular engineering and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, is leading a team designing a small research satellite NASA plans to send into orbit in 2026.

The PULSE-A — short for Polarization modUlated Laser Satellite Experiment — measures just 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 23 centimeters, a little smaller than a paper towel roll.

But by sending signals from space using lasers rather than radio waves, it aims to have a big impact on the speed and security of communications.

“The big draw of laser communication is that lasers use a higher frequency than radio waves, which means that you can transmit data a lot faster,” Hanssler said, adding that laser signals also are less susceptible to jamming and interference.

He and his University of Chicago classmates sent their satellite proposal to NASA in November. The space agency accepted it in March, and now Hanssler is preparing to help lead the project team into the next step, called the concept development phase.

“The proposal really just asked, ‘What are you looking to build?’” he said. “Now we need to think, ‘What does that really mean? What are the systems that we have to put together in order to make the satellite and the ground station and everything that goes together actually work?’”

That phase will end on June 2, when the group delivers a presentation to several systems engineering experts and professors who will provide feedback.

Following that will be the design phase, when the systems will be put to the test in a lab, as the group decides what components to assemble. By March 2026, everything should be ready for a summer launch.

NASA plans to send the satellite into orbit as part of its CubeSat Launch Initiative, which offers opportunities for small satellites built by U.S. educational institutions and nonprofit organizations to fly on upcoming launches.

While the PULSE-A satellite will focus on space-to-ground communications, other CubeSats chosen by NASA will delve into areas such as space climatology and LED-induced blue light pollution.

Logan Hanssler of Buffalo Grove at work in the lab at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. He is working with a model for part of PULSE-A's optical path. Hanssler will be leading a team that’s building a small satellite that NASA will put into orbit in 2026. Courtesy of University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering/Dee Ringgenberg

Hanssler found his interest in astrophysics and aerospace engineering while at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, where he belonged to the Physics Club and took part in a competition to design a space settlement.

Now, the college sophomore is part of a pioneering effort at the University of Chicago.

He learned about the project during his first term in 2022, when its director was recruiting a team of more than 60 students from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Physics Department, the Computer Science Department and the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Hanssler said he plans to pursue a doctorate in space systems engineering and hopes to become a satellite developer and researcher.

“This is incredibly relevant to my long-term goals, which is a big part of why I enjoy the project,” he said.

NASA’s decision to move forward with their proposal was “absolutely amazing,” he said.

“When I first got the news, I was just shocked. I didn't even know how to react,” Hanssler added. “This is a life-changing experience for us.”

A rendering shows the PULSE-A satellite being designed by a team of University of Chicago students, led by Buffalo Grove resident Logan Hanssler. Courtesy of PULSE-A
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