Release Date: January 26, 2022
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The University at Buffalo has been chosen to lead a new five-year, $5 million research program that aims to improve the nation’s ability in tracking and monitoring spacecraft and other objects such as debris and meteoroids.
The award — one of two issued nationwide from a pool of 40 applications — was announced in December by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and its basic research office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
It’s part of a newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program that was created to spur university research into new technologies for the Air Force and U.S. Space Force (USSF).
National defense “depends on space superiority, and AFRL has a long history of research and development in support of this domain. With the recent standup of the USSF, along with the emergence of U.S. Space Command and new energy in the commercial space sector, we have exciting opportunities to modernize the way we lead and manage [science and technology],” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of AFRL, said in a news release announcing the funding.
The grant’s principal investigator is John Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Chair Professor in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Moises Sudit, executive director of UB’s Center for Multisource Information Fusion and a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is co-principal investigator.
Sudit says there is data that can help improve space domain awareness, but first researchers must develop tools to better process and analyze that data. “We are drowning in data yet starved for useful information,” he says. “This project will allow us to find that actionable information for space decision-making that is otherwise buried among unusable noise.”
Partner institutions on the grant include Pennsylvania State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.
Space domain awareness
Space domain awareness involves the detection, identification, tracking and cataloging of objects in space. It is of growing importance because certain areas of space, such as low-Earth orbit, are becoming increasingly crowded with satellites, debris, meteoroids and other objects that threaten existing and future space missions.
The Space Force is responsible for tracking objects in space, providing information to all satellite operators on potential collisions and maintaining awareness of threatening situations.
This responsibility becomes more complex as the U.S. returns to the moon alongside numerous other nations and commercial interests. These new activities not only increase the number of objects in space, but also the volume that must be monitored.
Because of the large distances involved — most Space Force satellites are 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, and the moon is 10 times further than that — a detailed understanding of the thousands of objects on orbit requires increasingly sophisticated methods to detect them in the first place, confidently identify them, predict their trajectories, and understand their characteristics and activities.
The focus of the grant will be to develop cutting-edge techniques pertaining to sensors and measurement strategies, data fusion and autonomy, as well as improving algorithms to better predict the movements of objects in space.
“We tend to think of space as this vast, limitless area, but the reality is that it’s becoming increasingly small, especially near Earth,” Crassidis says. “We’re tracking more than 27,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth. These objects can threaten human and robotic space missions, satellites and other spacecraft.”
WNY growing as hub for aerospace/defense work
The AFRL award comes as Western New York — which has rich heritage of research and manufacturing in aviation and aerospace — continues to cement its reputation as a leader in the modern aerospace and defense sectors.
UB and partners such as CUBRC and Moog continue to push boundaries in research, design and education, while the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station employs approximately 3,000 individuals and cites an annual economic impact of $300 million.
The new grant also builds upon previous and existing aerospace grants UB has received in recent years.
Both AFRL and NASA awarded UB funding to build nanosatellites that track space debris. Additionally, UB was awarded an $8.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to study hybrid rockets, which could provide a safer and less expensive way to explore space compared to conventional rockets.
In 2020, three students working in UB’s Nanosatellite Laboratory, which is led by Crassidis, won U.S. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.