7 months ago

Small satellites, big learning opportunities

Dr. Saeed Latif and a group of engineering students at the University of South Alabama are preparing to explore space with a satellite project called SWARM-EX.

The plan is to launch three identical CubeSats – miniaturized, light-weight and low-cost satellites – to form a small constellation orbiting around the Earth. The satellites will feature new technologies for advanced data downlinks, radio communication among satellites, and onboard propulsion for autonomous operations within the swarm. The mission includes public outreach and science education for undergraduate and graduate students.

“Typically, satellites cost millions of dollars and take years to send, so most researchers don’t have access to them,” said Latif, an associate professor of electrical engineering. “With this one, we’ll build it in three years, fly in the third year, and in the fourth year we’ll do the experiments.

“This is good experience for the students. They get to participate in a big project with different phases and processes.”

SWARM-EX stands for Space Weather Atmospheric Reconfigurable Multiscale Experiment. Latif participated in a National Science Foundation Idea Lab Cross-Cutting Initiative in CubeSat Innovations with colleagues from Stanford, Georgia Tech and the University of Colorado.

Work on the satellites began in January. Launch is expected in 2023.

The latest student engineers to join SWARM-EX at South describe the program as an out-of-this-world opportunity.

Josh Yang, a junior from Gulf Shores, learned about the project from a classmate.“It just seemed cool to me, to build an electrical power system for something like a satellite,” he said. “I’ve never had practical experience like that.”

Aaron Mattox, a junior from Semmes, found the satellite work demanding but rewarding.

“It can be overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the very beginning of the project, so I try to take it one task at a time. I think of it as a really good learning experience.”

Latif was awarded a $218,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to run the program at South.

The CubeSats will orbit the earth at an altitude of 300 to 600 kilometers, measuring ionized and neutral gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Each CubeSat will include an atomic oxygen sensor and a Langmuir Probe to study the evolution of the equatorial ionization anomaly and equatorial thermospheric anomaly.

Large groups of satellites offer an opportunity to understand these anomalies and predict space weather. Yet the actual spacecraft are small, measuring just 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters.

“Each of them,” Latif said, “would be the size of a shoebox — actually, smaller than a shoebox.”

The What-If? Stage

Latif is involved in another satellite project, called JAGSAT-1, that could launch next year.

Crystal Pitts, an engineering senior from Daphne, has been working on JAGSAT and SWARM-EX.

“With the first one, I jumped in after it started, so I didn’t get to see a lot of it,” she said. “This one just got started, so I get to plan out what I need and what I can provide. That’s a lot cooler than coming in when it’s almost finished.

“For SWARM-EX, we’re still at the stage of what-ifs, so we have more questions than answers. We’re figuring out what components we need and how to fulfill our requirements.”

Pitts’ father, Paul Barrios, earned an engineering degree from South in 2001. Now he works in California for the aerospace industry.

His daughter is more interested in solar cells than satellites, though she can’t deny the appeal of “shooting stuff into space.” She believes it’s important to develop solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Most solar cells are made of silicon, but the CubeSats will use gallium arsenide, which is more efficient — and exciting.

“These are the big boys of solar cells,” Pitts said. “They can put out a lot of power.”

Lab and Home Work

In Shelby Hall, which houses South’s College of Engineering, a sign on Room 3217 says “Microwave/Antenna Lab.” This is the home of SWARM-EX.

Just inside the door stands a closet-sized mesh cube called a Faraday cage. It’s used to prevent external electromagnetic interference.

There are a few pieces of equipment in the lab, but most of the space is occupied by conference tables and computer stations. Latif meets with students once a week to plan work and review progress. South students also are collaborating with students at other institutions.

“Even before the coronavirus pandemic,” Latif said, “most of our work in this project was done remotely, as it involves students at multiple universities.”

The exception to that rule is the corner work station of Muhammed Mubasshir Hossain, a graduate student from Bangladesh. That’s a long way from Mobile, but for him it makes perfect sense.

“My undergraduate thesis was on small satellites,” he said. “I learned online about Dr. Latif and his work at South Alabama.”

The working title for Mubasshir’s master’s thesis at South is “Circularly Polarized Antennas for CubeSats for Deep Space Missions.”

The undergraduates who have joined SWARM-EX carry laptops that allow them work anywhere.

At home in Semmes, Mattox, 20, studies satellite technology in the evening and on weekends. He likes to have a little country music playing the background.

“Almost all of this is new to me, so there’s a learning curve, but it’s a lot more fun,” he said. “You’re contributing to a project that’s actually doing something. You’re actually doing some engineering.”

Yang, 21, has something in common with Mattox: both are members of the Honors College at South. And he has something in common with Pitts: his father is a South engineering grad, too.

In his west Mobile apartment, he’s more of a morning person.

“If it’s an off day with no classes, I work on the SWARM-EX project during the day,” Yang says. “I find it easier if it’s quiet.”

Pitts, a 29-year-old single mom, lives on the Eastern Shore with her two sons. Her research follows a different kind of afternoon schedule.

“After my kids get off the bus, they have a snack and do their homework,” she said. “I do at least two hours of satellite work a day.”

Pitts enjoys collaborating with students and professors at the University of Colorado and other colleges. There are a lot of bright engineers working on SWARM-EX. The only problem is that she’ll graduate this year and move on from the program.

That’s why she’s training her replacement. Soon she hopes to land a job that is just as challenging.

“If there was an opportunity to do this kind of project for a company,” Pitts said, “I’d love to do that.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

7 hours ago

Jim Zeigler considering ‘exploratory’ effort for Alabama governor in 2022

After much speculation, Gov. Kay Ivey announced her intentions to seek another term as governor in 2022 earlier this month.

Despite what were perceived to be controversial positions on pushing the Rebuild Alabama Act that raised the gasoline tax, her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in determining what could remain open and closed and a failed Mobile Bay/I-10 toll bridge proposal, Ivey is still riding high in polling with strong approve-disapprove numbers.

However, State Auditor Jim Zeigler, whose term as auditor will be over after 2022 and is ineligible to run again because of term limits, told Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show” on Friday that he was considering a run for governor in 2022.


“I believe it’s very important for Alabama taxpayers, for the state government, for our future to have a viable opponent who has been raising issues and trying to hold the Ivey administration accountable,” he said. “And that is why I am considering myself setting up an exploratory campaign to test the waters for a gubernatorial run. Who else is there — who else took the lead in blocking the toll bridge over Mobile Bay? Who else took the lead in blocking Amendment One that would have taken away your right to vote for school board members and have them all appointed by the Governor? Who else took the lead in blocking this prison rental plan that would have had us paying over $3 billion over 30 years and then owning zero equity in the prisons, a terrible business plan?”

“I don’t know,” Zeigler continued. “If not me, then who?”

If Zeigler runs against Ivey in 2022, it would not be the first time the two of their names appeared on a ballot in a race against one another. In Alabama’s 2020 Republican primary, Zeigler took on Ivey in a race for state delegate for the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Ivey prevailed with 7,182 votes to Zeigler’s 1,729 votes — a margin of 80.6% to 19.4%.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

11 hours ago

Alabama’s May unemployment rate drops to 3.4% — Post-pandemic rate at lows; Record high wages

Alabama’s post-COVID pandemic economic recovery seems to be humming along based on data released Friday by the Alabama Department of Labor.

According to a press release, Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington revealed Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted May unemployment rate is 3.4%, down from April’s rate of 3.6%.

The 3.4% rate tops the May 2020 number of 7.9%.

“May’s rate represents 75,458 unemployed persons, compared to 79,319 in April and 174,680 in May 2020,” the release said. “May’s unemployed count is the lowest in 2021.”



“Our record-breaking streak is continuing in May, and we hope that it continues throughout the rest of the year,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in the statement. “Yet again, we’ve dropped our unemployment rate and each month we are getting closer and closer to our pre-pandemic record low unemployment rate of 2.6%. Our economy is adding jobs, and earlier barriers to joining the workforce have been significantly reduced. In fact, there are more job postings than there are people counted as unemployed! Alabama is, once again, open for business.”

Data showed that wage and salary employment grew last month by 4,700.

“Monthly gains were seen in the leisure and hospitality sector (+5,000), the trade, transportation, and utilities sector (+2,500), and the education and health services sector (+1,200), among others. Over the year, wage and salary employment increased 123,000, with gains in the leisure and hospitality sector (+37,100), the professional and business services sector (+23,000), and the manufacturing sector (+22,900), among others,” the release said.

Average weekly earnings for the private sector rose to a new record high of $974.12, up $66.91 over the year, according to the Department of Labor.

“As we continue to see improvement in nearly all sectors of the economy, we’re also seeing record high wages in Alabama,” Washington added. “Once again, our average weekly wages are at new record high, representing an almost $67 per week over-the-year increase. Both the leisure and hospitality and manufacturing sectors are showing record high wages as well, with significant yearly increases. The economy is responding as we expected to labor force fluctuations brought about by the pandemic.”

Broken down by county, Shelby County led the way with a rate of 1.8%, followed by Blount, Marshall, Franklin and DeKalb Counties.

Wilcox County topped the highest in the state with an unemployment rate of 8.8%.

When broken down by municipalities, Alabaster had the lowest rate at 1.7%. Selma had the state’s highest, coming in at 7.0%, followed by Prichard at 6.5% and Bessemer at 5.2%.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

11 hours ago

Shelby warns Biden on defense cuts — ‘Military investments in China and Russia … outpace U.S. investment’

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) fired his own warning shots over what he views as an inadequate defense budget proposal from President Joe Biden.

During a full Senate Committee on Appropriations review of Biden’s Fiscal Year 2022 Department of Defense budget request, Shelby expressed his concern that the administration’s defense spending plan placed the nation at a disadvantage compared to its adversaries.

“The National Defense Strategy provides a road map for what the Department of Defense needs – at a minimum – to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia,” explained Shelby. “Anything less jeopardizes readiness, the recapitalization of capital assets, and necessary investments in new and emerging technologies.”

Shelby, who currently serves as vice chairman of the powerful Senate committee, believes that not meeting current national defense demands sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world.


“This year, the budget proposal signals to the world that this administration is not committed to investing in readiness, training, state of the art equipment, and technological overmatch,” Shelby stated. “With military investments in China and Russia continuing to outpace U.S. investments, I find it hard to believe that the requirements outlined by General Dunford just four years ago are no longer instructive.”

This critical assessment from Alabama’s senior senator comes less than a month after the highest-ranking U.S. military officer described the nation’s relations with China and Russia as “fraying.”

In an address to graduates of the United States Air Force Academy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “Right now we are in a great power competition with China and Russia. And we need to keep it at competition and avoid great power conflict.”

Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

Shelby addressed both officials in his remarks, stating, “The world is a complex and dangerous place and I know that you both understand the magnitude of the challenges we face from our near peer adversaries who seek to undermine the United States’ position as a world leader and dominant military power. China and Russia are formidable adversaries and China, as you have acknowledged Secretary Austin, is proving to be a true pacing threat. China seeks hegemony – militarily, technologically, economically, and geopolitically – and is making unprecedented investments to see that to fruition.”

“Meanwhile, Russia is nearing the end of a massive military modernization program that saw its defense spending increase 30 percent in real dollars over the last 10 years,” he added.

Shelby concluded that he could not support an effective cut in defense spending in 2022.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

12 hours ago

U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl urges Biden to undergo tests for ‘mental impairment’

U.S. Representative Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) joined 13 of his congressional colleagues in urging President Joe Biden to undergo an examination to determine his mental fitness to serve.

The group cited a string of embarrassing verbal gaffes by the president as the basis for their request.

In a letter sent to Biden on Thursday, the Republican members of Congress explained, “We write to you today to express concern with your current cognitive state. We believe that, regardless of gender, age, or political party, all Presidents should follow the precedent set by former President Donald Trump to document and demonstrate sound mental abilities.”

They continued, “Unfortunately, your mental decline and forgetfulness have become more apparent over the past 18 months. In March, you forgot the name of the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, and the Defense Secretary, though you had said ‘Secretary Austin’ just a few minutes prior.”

In addition, the letter cites Biden’s telling of an Amtrak story with an inexplicable timeline, forgetting the first line of the Declaration of Independence and obvious disorientation during a visit to Texas as examples for why they believe Biden is in need of cognitive testing.


The list of gaffes attributable to his mental acuity seems to be piling up for the 46th president.

During the G7 Summit in England recently, he asked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to introduce the South African president.

RELATED: Biden lashes out at media member and Alabama native Kaitlan Collins over Putin — ‘You’re in the wrong business’

Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce has questioned whether Biden’s cognitive state is a national security liability.

Biden has received criticism in the early stages of his administration for calling on only a predetermined list of reporters during press conferences. The most recent instance of this occurred while Biden was in Geneva, Switzerland, for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Carl and the other letter signers pushed for transparency with any medical assessments being made, as well.

“We encourage you to follow the example set by President Trump by undergoing a cognitive test as soon as possible and immediately making the results available for the American people,” they concluded.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

13 hours ago

ALGOP chair John Wahl: AEA resurgence ‘a concern’; Reminds GOP candidates ‘not a good idea’ accept their campaign contributions

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) seemingly flexed its muscle at the end of the 2021 legislative session by successfully pushing through a two-year delay to the Literacy Act, which mandates children be able to read at a third grade level before proceeding to the fourth grade.

Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed the delay, but it left political watchers wondering if this was just the beginning of the AEA’s return to the forefront of Alabama politics.

During an appearance on FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show” on Thursday, Alabama Republican Party chairman John Wahl said it was indeed a concern for the party.


“[I]t’s funny you bring that up because at one point in the past, there was actually a resolution passed by the state party, I believe, that was saying Republican candidates should not take money from the AEA because of their influence and the concern they would have over direct policy,” he stated. “So, of course, that’s a concern. That type of influence from anybody pushing to regulate themselves is never — you don’t want a group regulating themselves. That’s not good for policy.”

While there was a resolution in place that pertained to AEA campaign contributions to Republican candidates, Wahl said it was not an outright ban but a “strong recommendation” not to accept their money.

“I need to go back and look at the resolution in-depth,” Wahl said. “But I believe it was a resolution, so it’s not a direct ban. There’s no teeth to it. But it was a very strong recommendation to candidates — that it is not a good idea to take that money.”

“[T]here were jokes about how the AEA controlled the state and had a vast amount of control over policy and what would happen with the Governor’s office, the state legislature,” he explained. “So much of that has gotten better since Republicans have taken control. But you’re right — we’re seeing a resurgence, at least of their involvement. Hopefully not their influence.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.