South students build satellite to study Earth’s plasma layer

NASA took the satellite to the International Space Station; ISS astronauts set it into orbit

Dr. Samual Russ, left, works on the antenna with student team members Matt Byers and Khaja Shaik and Dr. Edmund Spencer, right. Photo by Dan Anderson

Students and professors from the University of South Alabama were among the most ardent viewers July 15 when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took to the skies from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.

Aboard was JagSat-1, the culmination of a six-year project by students and faculty, creating a satellite to study the plasma layer at the very outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

The July flight took JagSat-1 to the International Space Station. From there, it was nudged into Earth’s orbit in August.

JagSat-1 is small but mighty. Measuring 4 by 4 by 8 inches and weighing less than 5 pounds, it is tiny enough to fit in a shoebox with room to rattle.

JagSat-1 is smaller than a shoebox. Photo by Dan Anderson.

Once out of the ISS, it will orbit the earth at about 16,000 miles per hour, circling the globe once every 90 minutes for approximately 18 months.

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JagSat-1 took a long time to get there.

Six years ago, Edmund Spencer, a professor at the University of South Alabama, developed a method of measuring free electron density. “It is called ‘plasma,’ also known as ‘space weather,’” says Spencer. “Plasma is the near-vacuum of space, and to measure it, we measure something called free electron density.” In laymen’s terms, plasma can fluctuate, interfering with earth’s radio signals and causing GPS devices to be inaccurate.

“My instrument will make higher-resolution measurements,” Spencer says. “If we get good data we will understand what the plasma is doing up there. If we understand what it is doing up there, we can probably come up with some model that explains solutions.”

But the best way to measure plasma is to be up in it. Spencer and his colleague, Samuel Russ, received funding from NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Program (USIP) to build a satellite for performing the measurements.

“One of the USIP’s requirements is that undergraduate students must work on the program,” says Russ. “We had and have great students working on this. They designed the frame, circuit boards, and actually assembled the satellite.” He and Spencer estimate around 50 students have contributed to the project over its six years.

Dr. Edmund Spencer, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of South Alabama. Photo by Dan Anderson.

“The parts we did not build were things like batteries, GPS systems and radios,” notes Spencer. “But most of the rest of it, we built in house.”

The team also improvised when needed. “I worked on the burn wire,” says 22-year-old graduate student Noah Schwan of Mobile. A crucial mechanism of JagSat-1, the burn wire does as its name implies — it burns when told to do so from Planet Earth’s Shelby Hall.

 “When activated, an onboard metal coil will heat and become hot enough to melt the wire. Once the wire melts and separates, two measuring tapes are released but tethered to the satellite to take measurements.

The burn wire is also used by non-scientists in other applications where it’s usually known by its other name — “fishing line.”

The six-year undertaking was not without obstacles. Like everywhere else, there were COVID-19 delays. “But COVID was a speed bump, relative to other issues,” recalls Russ. “A big challenge were our students. They keep graduating,” he says with a laugh. “Then we have to turn it over to others.”

Darcey D’Amato is one such former student. The USA Class of 2021 graduate was the team’s mechanical systems lead. “I spent a lot of time managing mechanical designs we were doing,” she says, from her Seattle home. “This was my first experience in building a satellite. It exposed me to what satellite design actually is and gave the hands-on experience I needed to get where I wanted to go.”

Today, as a space systems engineer for Boeing, D’Amato designs satellites for a living.

In addition to building the spacecraft, USA also constructed the ground station, which is not on the ground, but slated to be installed on the roof of Shelby Hall.

“A lot of what I am doing is based on the ground station,” says Matt Byers. A student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Byers spent the summer working on the USA project in Mobile.  “I worked on assembling the antenna, putting it together and testing it,” he says, as he sits before a 12-foot antenna, which overwhelms the desk it lays on.

Originally, the plan was to use a ground station at the University of Colorado, until NASA informed them that the uplink must be on South’s campus. The team scrambled, working with USA’s Facilities Management Department to eventually install the antenna on the roof of Shelby Hall.

When completed, the antenna will follow the track of JagSat-1 from the time it rises over one horizon until it sets over the other one. The instrument will collect data from the satellite as it passes over, 200 miles above earth.

Designers of the pint-size satellite hope it will ship back data for about two years. Photo by Dan Anderson.

On July 15, 2022, while the rocket carried JagSat-1 into space, current and former USA team members gathered via Zoom for a launch party.

“It was definitely a bucket-list experience,” recalls Russ. “After all of the time, work and effort, seeing that rocket rise and go into space was breathtaking.”

After watching the lift off from Seattle, Darcey D’Amato agrees. “The event was surreal. I was proud of the work and effort the team put into this. It was also so much fun talking to former team members on Zoom.”

Byers added, “It was really cool seeing everybody again, at the Zoom Launch Party. It turned into a reunion.”

Noah Schwan reminisced, while watching the event live. “It is a great accomplishment,” he says. “Not just for our team, but for our school, in putting its first satellite in space. We all had a common goal and we achieved it.”

The next step, and the big one, is analyzing data now flowing back to Earth.

 “If all goes well, we will be studying the data collected for a long time,” says Spencer. The team hopes for two years of data collection before the little satellite’s orbit decays and the little box burns up re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

And then? JagSat-2.

Emmett Burnett and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Mobile.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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