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Howard Altman: USF researcher, too tall for space travel, works on SOCom satellites

Published May 31, 2017

If Peter Jorgensen has his way, astronauts of the future will never be locked out of their spacecraft by a computer uttering the phrase, "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that" when they try to get back in.

The line, of course, is from a famous scene in director Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Jorgensen, 26, is a graduate research assistant in the University of South Florida's Department of Electrical Engineering. For him, the malfunctioning artificial intelligence of the fictional HAL 9000 computer is more than an iconic film moment. It is a lesson for the future. That's because, in the future, Jorgensen wants to develop artificial intelligence satellites that can help guide manned spacecraft on trips to Mars and beyond.

That's down the road. For now, Jorgensen is helping U.S. Special Operations Command with its satellite program.

SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, is working with USF to support and develop payloads for the command's cube satellite program. The program puts small satellites into orbit to give commandos the ultimate high ground when it comes to communications and other needs.

Jorgensen is working through Sofwerx, an Ybor City-based business accelerator that is run by the Doolittle Institute through a SOCom contract. He'll be helping the command figure out what kinds of payloads to launch.

Being that this is for commandos, a largely secret force, Jorgensen won't offer specifics. But he says that currently, he is researching the kinds of technology that might interest SOCom.

Payloads, devices that contain technology such as cameras and sensors, will be shot into low Earth orbit from the Kennedy Space Center within the next 12 to 18 months, according to a USF news release last month.

The payloads "will help the U.S. military solve battlefield problems by providing real-time communication," according to the release.

"If satellites are becoming more capable and yet smaller, cheaper, require less power, more technology packed into small areas, that really is the future," Robert H. Bishop, dean of the USF College of Engineering, said in the release "It's a future of communications, future of weather, it's the future for remote sensing. So for us to be at that the leading edge, it's going to be a good thing for the state of Florida and for Tampa Bay and the nation."

For SOCom, working with USF makes sense.

"For the challenges of the future, we think it's important to team with top tier academic institutions to enable the innovation and the rapid decision making, idea generation, and capability development we need," said SOCom's acquisition chief, James "Hondo" Geurts.

"USF, by nature of being close to SOCom as well as their diverse and accomplished academic capabilities are the perfect partner for us on this project, and we think low cost space vehicles are a key capability for the future, and we're very proud to work with USF on that important project."

For Jorgensen, who grew up dreaming of being an astronaut, working on the CubeSat program is a way to achieve dreams his body wouldn't allow.

"I'm 6-8," he says with a laugh. "That's too tall to be an astronaut."

• • •

The Pentagon last week announced the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.

Spc. Etienne J. Murphy, 22, of Loganville, Georgia, died May 26, in Al-Hasakah, Syria, of injuries sustained during a vehicle rollover related incident. The incident is under investigation. Murphy was assigned to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia..

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 36 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 31 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; and one death under classified as other contingency operations as part of the global war on terrorism.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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