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Glory, glory to rocket scientists at UGA

As you may have heard by now, a group of young men from the University of Georgia, the oldest state-chartered university in the nation, located in Athens, the Classic City of the South and home to more Rhodes Scholars than a coon dog has fleas recently engaged in a scrum with a group of semi-professional athletes in Alabama and lost 41-24. Not making excuses but what can you expect from an academic institution chock full of rocket scientists?

And, no, I am not talking about You-Know-Where Institute of Technology where they like to brag about all their astronauts (14) whenever I talk about our Rhodes Scholars (24). On that same Saturday, YKWIT managed to hold No. 1 Clemson scoreless, that is until somebody had the bright idea of kicking off and actually playing the game. Big mistake. In 60 minutes of competition (Wink! Wink!) Clemson hung a point a minute on them and had 13 left over.

But let’s get back to the rocket scientists, shall we? It seems that while all this football stuff was going on, a group of UGA students and faculty members decided to up and build themselves a satellite and then to launch that sucker into outer space. The rocketeers are members of the UGA Small Satellite Research Lab, a collaboration between students and faculty across multiple disciplines at the university.

The lab’s director is Deepak Mishra, a UGA geography professor. David Cotten, an assistant research scientist is the associate lab director. Hollis Neel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in geology from UGA is the lab’s co-founder.

Neel told the university’s online newspaper, Columns, that when the lab began in 2016, they dreamed of sending something — anything, really — into space. “I was looking for the most difficult thing I could find and throwing myself at it,” he said. The Small Satellite Research Lab began with 15 undergraduate students and eight faculty. It has grown to include over 100 students in fields ranging from physics and electronics to geography and engineering. Several have received prestigious NASA internships, others have been hired by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley or have taken jobs at private aerospace firms. This clearly is not your momma and daddy’s UGA.

Oh, the satellite? It took off from the Wallops Facility in Virginia on the evening of Oct. 2, roughly 24 hours before the Bulldogs walloped Auburn 27-6. (I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist that.)

Called SPOC, short for Spectral Ocean Color, the satellite docked with the International Space Station traveling 254 miles above earth at a speed of five miles per second. Getting the satellite off the ground wasn’t easy. A malfunction discovered weeks before a planned launch last March forced a postponement.

And then, of course, came the pandemic. The lab was shut down in the spring and summer, limiting the number of people who could be inside the facility at any one time. Scheduled for a Sept. 29 launch, things were moved back to Oct. 1 because of weather concerns. With less than three minutes before departure, ground support equipment problem forced yet another postponement. And then comes Oct. 2 and we have liftoff!

In a few weeks, SPOC will be deployed from the International Space Station and will begin monitoring our coastal ecosystem. With an advanced optic system that can zoom in on coastal areas, it will be able to detect chemical composition and physical characteristics on ocean and wetland surfaces and provide valuable data to researchers at UGA and beyond. All of this in a device about the size of a loaf of bread!

You would think that those involved at the UGA Small Satellite Research Lab would be satisfied to go where no Bulldogs have gone before ,but you would be thinking wrong. The lab hopes to have a second satellite, MOCI, which stands for Multi-view Onboard Computational Imager — Don’t ask me. I just work here — ready to launch in fall 2021. A third satellite is in development with help from Let’s Go to Space, a local nonprofit organization headed by — well, OK — a Georgia Tech graduate, which is promoting the development of the small satellite industry. As a proud graduate of the University of Georgia, I would like to thank the students and faculty at the Small Satellite Research Lab for proving that we are about a lot more than just winning football games at UGA. What these folks have accomplished is simply out of this world. Woof! Woof!