Small Satellite Lab

Two students pose with their satellite in the Small Satellite Research Laboratory, which was founded in 2016 with the original goal of building a spacecraft.

Just two years since an eclectic group met established the Small Satellite Research Laboratory at the University of Georgia, the SSRL will finally launch its first satellite into space after applying and getting accepted for missions from NASA and the U.S. Air force.

“The plan is to finish building and testing the [SPectral Ocean Color] satellite and hand it over to NASA by late Summer,” said Deepak Mishra, a principal investigator and science adviser for the SSRL. “My optimistic expectation is this time next year. Say October 2019.”

According to the lab’s website, the SPOC’s main goal is to “acquire moderate resolution imagery across a wide range of spectral bands to monitor coastal ecosystems and ocean color,” and will monitor coastal wetland status, water quality and certain species in the area, such as phytoplankton.

The other project the SSRL is working on is even more prestigious, said Malcolm Adams, a UGA mathematics professor. The SSRL was only one of two winners of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory University Nanosatellite Program Flight Selection Review and is now beyond the first phase of its Multi-view Onboard Computational Imager. The SSRL is building the MOCI and plans for a 2020 delivery.

The goal for MOCI is to collect imagery of Earth’s surface and “perform near real time Structure from Motion at a landscape scale using custom algorithms,” according to their website.The MOCI will locate and map coastal developments of things such as sediment plumes and algal blooms.

During the 2015-16 school year at UGA, Adams, several Geography faculty and four undergraduate students all had the goal of starting a satellite-related laboratory and utilizing a sensor.

At this point both projects are beyond the initial stage, and David Cotton, one of the other principal investigators for the SSRL, said the teams have minimal overlap — students mostly work on one of the two missions.

“At this stage, we tend to keep the teams separate since the missions are beginning to diverge,” Cotton said. “They use some identical parts, but the main payloads are completely different. MOCI is more computer vision while SPOC is optical and spectrally difficult.”

The progress made for a laboratory still in its infancy has impressed even the faculty that work on the SSRL.

“Sometimes when I think about the lab and how it all got started, I am amazed by the progress we made in just four years,” Mishra said. “I am always thinking about new ways to get more funding to the lab and [to] keep this lab growing. My goal is to bring it to a level of regional prominence, particularly in environmental remote sensing.”

Now, the SSRL has 50-60 students every semester, but the group still wants to grow. It accepts new students based off of vacancies from graduation every semester. While the application period has already closed for fall 2018, it will open up again early 2019.

“Most new students don’t have the full training to build a satellite, but they have the passion and drive,” Cotton said. “It is those two things that make the best members of the SSRL.”

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