Laws of physics strictly enforced

Buckle up!

(This article appears in the December 2018 edition of Checkpoints magazine:

Russia made history in 1957 when it launched the world’s first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit around the Earth. It instantly accelerated the space race between the United States and Russia.

Space was a lonely place back then, but not any more. Today, more than 23,000 man-made objects the size of softballs or larger are circling the Earth, including communications satellites, the International Space Station, discarded rocket boosters and other abandoned space hardware. Only about 1,900 of the objects are operational satellites.

Who goes there?

Identifying and tracking these orbiting space objects is obviously important to the Department of Defense (DoD). Who’s up there and what are they doing? Is an inactive satellite really inactive? Is debris really debris? Answering these and other questions has created a growing field for research in Space Situational Awareness (SSA).

The United States Air Force Academy has developed three space-related research centers coordinated through the Department of Physics: the Center for Space Situational Awareness Research, the Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center and the Astronomical Research Group and Observatory.

“What we do in my research center is focus on ground-based SSA research,” says Dr. Francis Chun ’83, a former physics major who is now the director of the Center for Space Situational Awareness Research. “We do a lot of satellite optical characterization.”


Using a worldwide network of telescopes in the Academy’s Falcon Telescope Network, cadets learn how to identify objects of interest in space by studying orbits, optical characteristics, reflective sunlight, light wavelength measurements and a host of other data.

“For instance, we can identify characteristics that are common to Boeing, Lockheed Martin or other manufacturers that produce and fabricate these satellites,” Chun says. “It helps us distinguish and further characterize the satellites.”

Several years ago, cadets worked with NASA and the Orbital Debris Program Office to collect data on some Russian-made, upper-stage rocket bodies orbiting the Earth.

“The focus of the research was to determine the stability of the rocket stages,” Chun explains. “There was a big push in the community, both in the civil and defense communities, on coming up with ways to remove space objects from orbit in order to reduce the level of space debris in orbit around the Earth.”

Col. Rex Kiziah ’81, a former physics major who is now permanent professor and head of the Department of Physics, is quick to point out that the work in the Academy’s research centers is strictly unclassified.

“All of our research is in the unclassified world,” Kiziah says. “We don’t do any classified research on satellite characterization. There’s enough unclassified research so that we don’t have to delve into the classified world. But much of what we do on the unclassified side is certainly applicable to understanding more classified systems.”

Launching into orbit

“Basically, my group works with cadets in physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and other engineering backgrounds to build and fly satellites and look at the data that comes from them,” says Dr. Matthew "Geoff" McHarg, director of the Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center.

“Generically, a lot of what we do is measure the background environment to see what effects those environments have on DoD spacecraft,” McHarg says. “As an example, the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE) is a very small 10x10x10 cm satellite that releases two stainless steel ball bearings on command. We will use measurements of the orbit of these objects to determine changes in the background atmospheric density over time. Falcon ODE is a great example of cadets learning about real DoD space missions by working hand-in-hand with their sponsors from the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC).”

satellite test

Two Academy-built payloads and one satellite are ready to launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, scheduled for spring 2019. FalconSAT-7 carries an innovative telescope created to collect solar images. The launch also will include two Integrated Miniaturized Electrostatic Analyzer (iMESA) experiments. The iMESA instruments were built by Academy cadets and are hosted by two satellites provided by the DoD Space Test Program.

The Department of Physics has had a steady stream of research experiments performed aboard the International Space Station.

“We typically have one or two experiments up in the International Space Station at any given time,” McHarg says. “I really like the Space Station. We get really good support, both from NASA and the Space Test Program.”

With an eye on space, current ground-based research involves using high-speed cameras and spectrometers to study auroras and sprites, electrical phenomena that occur above thunderstorms, often called transient luminous events.

These studies have drawn cadets into research on using neuromorphic cameras for tracking satellites and monitoring space debris. The cameras, which mimic unique functions of the human eye, can greatly reduce the necessary amount of data to be transmitted from the satellite to the ground, speeding up data transfer.

“Two of the things that we want to look at from the Space Station are lightning and sprites,” McHarg says. “It’s a normal background that you can see from the station all the time so it makes a good target set for us to look at.”

McHarg and cadets involved in senior capstone projects recently presented their research to the Space Experiments Review Board in Washington, D.C. They are vying for approval to conduct Academy-created neuromorphic camera experiments on the International Space Station.

Time warp

For a long time, the Air Force Academy observatory doubled as a museum of sorts. Its 61 cm telescope was a relic.

“The telescope was built five years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon,” says Dr. Devin Della-Rose, director of the Astronomical Research Group and Observatory. “It is the oldest active telescope in the Air Force inventory.”

Cadets used the telescope to conduct valuable research, studying exoplanets, tracking hazardous near-Earth asteroids, viewing supernovas and tracking space objects. Dr. Chun even used it when he was a cadet in the early 1980s. But the Apollo-era telescope needed to be replaced in order to keep pace with 21st-century research. 


The push to upgrade to a new one-meter scope came together in 2017 when an Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant of $545,000 and more than $315,000 in private funding from the United States Air Force Academy Endowment enabled Della-Rose and Chun to order a state-of-the-art telescope from a German/Austrian manufacturer. The old 61 cm telescope was removed in October, with the new one to arrive in fall 2019.

“The new scope will gather light at least four times faster; be capable of tracking low-orbiting spacecraft, such as the International Space Station; accommodate modern instrumentation; and be remotely operable, conceivably from any location around the globe,” Della-Rose says.

Additional funding through the Endowment enabled Della-Rose to add a sophisticated wide-field camera and high-resolution spectrograph to the new telescope.

“This is the way of the future for USAFA space-science research,” Della-Rose says. “This is an asset that will serve the Academy for decades to come.”

The new telescope will provide advanced research opportunities for cadets and civilian and DoD researchers.

Della-Rose is also enthusiastic about expanding the Academy’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) outreach to the community.

“Ours will be the largest publicly accessible telescope in the state of Colorado,” Della-Rose says. “We will have school students, scout troops and teachers groups coming out to the observatory.”

There also will be close collaboration between the observatory and the Academy’s newly renovated Planetarium and STEM Center. Academy supporters rallied behind its renovation as well, donating more than $2.8 million to the project through the Endowment.

Della-Rose believes that hosting joint events between the observatory and planetarium will help the Academy re-engage with the community in a way that hasn’t been seen since before 9/11.

“Planetarium and observatory events will be a really great thing for the Academy,” Della-Rose says. “The opportunities that this one-meter telescope is going to bring us for research collaborations — not just for cadets, but within the DoD, the civilian community and with international partners through the Falcon Telescope Network — are just going to explode!”



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