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Air Force Research Lab, Others Tap UA Space Expertise

Posted May 9, 2018

With a total of $6.65 million in new funding, UA experts in space situational awareness are improving the nation’s ability to identify and monitor satellites in collaboration with international allies.

Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957, dozens of countries have sent hundreds of satellites into space with no way to retrieve them when they eventually, inevitably break down.

Consequently, space is more congested, contested and, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. With a total of $6.65 million in new funding, University of Arizona researchers are working to make space a safer place for our nation’s satellites.

Since 2016, the UA has hired five new faculty members with expertise in space situational awareness, or SSA —an emerging research area focused on identifying, characterizing and understanding the behavior of objects in space. Dubbed SSA-Arizona, the initiative is designed to reinforce the UA’s long-standing leadership in space science.

The new awards — a $3.3 million cooperative agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory, a $350,000 award from the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and a $3 million sub-award from Lockheed Martin — represent the first major return on the UA’s investment in SSA.


The first of the three awards, from the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, will make it easier for the “Five Eyes” — an alliance among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States — to share data and surveil satellites. Led by the director of SSA-Arizona, Roberto Furfaro, the award will help create a new cyberinfrastructure for the U.S. to use to collaborate with its Five Eyes allies.

“One part of SSA is trying to find out where things are in space, what their intent is and who are the operators executing that intent,” said Vishnu Reddy, an assistant professor of planetary sciences and one of the five researchers hired in 2016. “Another issue is managing traffic in space so that things don’t hit each other.”

“I think it’ll set a new standard for this kind of work,” Furfaro said of the AFRL agreement. “It’ll be a collaborative environment where they can seamlessly drop data, make discoveries and acquire knowledge in SSA.”

The multimillion-dollar cooperative agreement will last for an initial three years, with potential for further funding thereafter.


The one-year, $350,000 grant from DARPA is led by UA optical scientist Michael Hart.

“Space has become full of junk over the last 60 years and it’s continuing to get worse,” Hart said.

Commercial satellites are launched into geostationary orbit, or GEO, a highly coveted and tightly controlled slice of space above the equator rotating in the same direction as Earth. But because of solar radiation, satellites wear out after about 15 years and accumulate in the orbital area.

The DARPA-funded project is aimed at monitoring the unique vibrations of each satellite to detect when it is about to die so it can be directed to a “graveyard orbit” to reduce the possibility of a collision with operational satellites or spacecraft.

Lockheed Martin

The third award — a three-year, $3 million contract with Lockheed Martin — is aimed at taking high-resolution photos of satellites in GEO.

“This project is focused on the same kind of problem as the DARPA-funded project,” said Hart, who is leading the research team. While measuring changes in vibration “promises to give us very useful information, there’s nothing better than an honest-to-goodness picture.”

The researchers will develop a small-scale prototype to combine light from several telescopes spread apart from one another and use them to piece together high-resolution images.

While there is little precedent for any one of the new projects in the emerging science of SSA, the researchers believe the UA is best suited for the challenge.

“There’s no other university in the world that can match the assemblage of infrastructure and human talent in all things space,” Hart said. “We know what it means to operate in space, and it’s a very natural arena for the UA to be engaged in.”

Source: University of Arizona, by Emily Litvack.

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