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Alabama students prepare for an "out of this world" assignment

University of South Alabama

The first satellite designed and built at the University of South Alabama could soon be operating in orbit. It took the six-year effort to build and launch what’s known as Jag SAT one. That tiny spacecraft would probably fit in your car’s glove compartment. It’s only four inches by four inches by eight inches. It’s what’s known as a ‘cubesat,’ or cube satellite. It was designed and built by almost 50 South Alabama faculty members and students. JagSat will measure fluctuations in the plasma layers in the part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere.

“To be very accurate, we're measuring plasma density in the ionosphere and this plasma density affects radio signals that pass through the ionosphere,” said USA physics Professor Edmund Spencer. He developed the idea for the instrument.


“So, there's a lot of interest in how radio frequency signals, from the GPS constellation, as well as other radio signals that pass through the ionosphere get affected by the plasma moving around and evolving. So, people are trying to understand them under the general area of space weather so we are able to mitigate the effects.”

Mitigating the effects of plasma and atmosphere, GPS could be many times more efficient.

“Because of the ionosphere and because of the atmosphere you lose several meters and so you are making five to 10s of meters in terms of accuracy unless you are slow moving and you continuously lock,” said Spencer. “So, you're a fast-moving aircraft, it's going to be very difficult to track your GPS position because of the effects of the atmosphere.”

University of South Alabama

Spencer says part of the challenge was fitting everything needed for the mission into a space smaller than a shoebox.

“It's a complex satellite. It has a power system. It has communication radios. It's got the instrument on there. It's got guidance and navigation control and whatever, the GPS on it. So, it has whatever it needs to function like a little autonomous robot pretty much that you throw up in the sky,” he observed.

The advantage of that little robot is that it can take measurements faster than previous instruments.

“The satellite is flying through space at like 5 miles per second, just this ridiculous speed, OK,” said Sam Ross. He’s another USA professor who worked on the project.

“So, if it takes a long time to make the measurement, the measurement is spread out over a long stretch of space. So, if you could make the measurement faster, you can make the measurement over a smaller area of space and so you could make a finer measurement. It's like switching from a low-resolution camera to a high resolution camera. You're making the same measurement, but with higher resolution.

“The purpose of the satellite is to demonstrate that the instrument can make this measurement, period. If we get a single measurement and it's right, it shows the instrument works,” he said.

Ross says one part of the project is measuring how solar winds pouring out of ther sun and streaming to Earth affect the plasma and radio signals.

“It turns out that space is not really a vacuum. It's almost a vacuum, but not quite. What's in space is are these ionized particles that are like pieces of atoms floating around in space is what space is if you go out of Earth's atmosphere and just like a cloud, it can be more dense. It can be less dense,” Ross observed.

University of South Alabama

“Much of the work on the system was done by undergraduate students. Ross says that’s unusual in advanced projects like this.

“We use our undergraduate students for this, which is really rare. Most colleges, undergraduate students don't really get involved in stuff like this. We've had, I've lost count the number of students going into aerospace careers straight out of the CubeSat project. A bunch of them are in Huntsville. We've got a bunch in Huntsville and at least four or five in Washington State. They've gone all over, which I'm really proud of,” said Ross.

Students who started on the project graduated and were replaced by others who also graduated before the satellite was delivered for launch earlier this year. For many students, the project was a high point of their time at South.

“Oh yeah, it was like my favorite part of college,” said Shawna Mason.

She now works in the aerospace industry in Huntsville. From 2017 to 2019, she worked on Jag Sat as a USA undergrad.

“I had just changed my major to electrical engineering and I came in to develop some software for the attitude determination and control system, which would help orient Jag Sat 1, while it was taking its measurements in space. I helped layout the framework for that, and then someone took over,” she said.

Mason says she and other students working on the project wondered when, or if, their work would end up aboard the International Space Station awaiting launch into own orbit.

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2021 file photo provided by NASA, the International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour. Russia's space chief said Tuesday, July 26, 2022, that they will opt out of the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbiting outpost. (NASA via AP, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2021 file photo provided by NASA, the International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour. Russia's space chief said Tuesday, July 26, 2022, that they will opt out of the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbiting outpost. (NASA via AP, File)

“Whenever I meet up with my old friends and colleagues that worked on Jag Sat, we almost always are bringing it up. When is it going to launch? When is it going to launch? We're all waiting for it and so when our professor, Dr. Sam Russ, reaches out to us and says it's time. It's going to launch on this day, we're elated. I couldn't think of almost anything else that week. I was so excited.

JagSat’s launch led to an improvised party over Zoom as the Space X rocket took off to carry the small device to the orbiting space station.

“So, we're all in this Zoom meeting, eating snacks, wings, pizza, whatever, and we're watching this live takeoff of the shuttle that's carrying the hardware and the software and everything, just years of our work together,” said Mason. “It was a great kind of hand-holding, breath-holding moment to see it go up in space.

The work isn’t done. South Alabama is building an antenna to communicate with JagSat-1 and making plans for the next project, JagSat-2. Again Edmund Spencer.

“We know how to navigate the implementation of a satellite now it will not take us six years, the next time we try to do this. In fact it will take less than maybe 2 1/2 years,” he observed.

And designer and builders of the JAG Sat at the University of Alabama might consider that faster timeline to be out of this world. Guy Busby, APR News, in Mobile.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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