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US Space Command launches partnership with Arizona

15 Sep 2022

Research – including optics and photonics specialisms – could yield benefits for wider global markets.

From Ford Burkhart in Tucson

The U.S. Space Command has enlisted the University of Arizona as its first formal academic partner, with talk of enhanced research on the top challenges to defense technology and beyond. The venture may help solve problems like preventing chaos in space traffic, monitoring space debris, and even human settlement of space.

The partnership, announced on September 1st, was hailed at West Point, in New York State, on Wednesday, in a keynote address by Arizona’s Provost and Senior Vice President Liesl Folks.

“Space research at the University of Arizona is about students and faculty working on the frontiers,” Folks said, “making eye-opening new discoveries, and inventing new space technologies that can propel us to the four corners of the solar system and paving the way for the future.”

Professors in aerospace engineering and at UArizona’s Wyant College of Optical Sciences are expected to play key roles in workforce training and research.

‘Beneficial partnership opportunities’

Colonel Doug Drake, the chief of training and education at the US Space Command (USSPACECOM), commented, “U.S. Space Command recognizes the incredible collaborative and mutually beneficial partnership opportunities the University of Arizona presents to our command and workforce. With the full spectrum of space-science programs and degrees, the University of Arizona and its faculty provide an academic standard for others to emulate.

“We look forward to leveraging the University of Arizona's scientific, technical and academic prowess in support of USSPACECOM as we meet our National Security and National Defense responsibilities.”

After the formal launch of AEE, Jekan Thanga, associate professor in aerospace and mechanical engineering at UArizona, said, “In optics, Arizona has been working for a long time on advancements in optics and general astronomical observation. In the space world, that means space command awareness. It has also been a leader in space communications employing optics, lasers and lighting systems.”

Optics plays a key role in navigation systems and in placement of optical beacons for space traffic control, Thanga said. Space traffic involves spacecraft for GPS, weather forecasting and communication satellites, and the volume of space traffic is expected to increase with the introduction of mega-constellations, new space stations and on-orbit servicing facilities into cislunar space (the space between Earth and the moon).

“If not properly managed, the increased traffic could stifle future growth prospects and limit access to space,” Thanga said. “The expected wider expansion into space will require mastery in living and working within cislunar space.”

‘Multiprong education program’

He added, “The university, through long experience-spanning space missions, technology and habitats, will be developing a multiprong education program and skillset that will equip USSPACECOM personnel to tackle these challenges.” Work to secure the designation as an Academic Engagement Enterprise (AEE) involved many individuals across the university, Thanga said. He is coordinating campus responses to the USSPACECOM, which is based at Petersen Space Force Base in Colorado.

Thanga is director of the ASTEROIDS (an acronym for Asteroid Science, Technology and Exploration Research Organized by Inclusive eDucation Systems) Laboratory at UArizona. “Our mission and mandate is to catalyze information in these areas.” The AEE’s educational programs are expected to be available to the wider education marketplace beyond defense, he said. “And it may open up new opportunities for research on capstone products in the marketplace in the optics realm.”

One example in optics could be enhanced lighting and laser systems to help guide and track spacecraft. “Space traffic management is in its infancy,” he said. And as the research grows, the AEE may help industry and government roll out standards for using optical lighting to ID and track spacecraft. Thanga added: “This is all designed to tackle wider problems, like collection of space debris, and keeping space traffic from generating chaos.”

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