UB is leading the charge in an emerging area of national military and strategic interest: space domain awareness.
UB beat out a pool of 40 proposals to land one of two awards issued nationwide under a new Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program announced by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in December.
“[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.
The program will run for up to five years – with up to $1 million to be awarded each year – and contribute to the nation’s space domain awareness capabilities, according to the release. UB is set to lead partner institutions on the grant, including Penn State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.
The grant’s principal investigator, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Chair Professor in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering John Crassidis,, submitted the proposal.
Crassidis sat down in an interview with The Spectrum discussing plans for the grant and the burgeoning relevance of space domain awareness.
What is space domain awareness?
Space objects are constantly at risk of colliding in orbit. Space domain awareness involves detecting, identifying, tracking and cataloging the items in space. Over years of space travel, this practice has become more crucial due to the crowding of debris, satellites,and other objects in low-orbit regions of space around the Earth.
“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 said in a UBNow release. “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.”
Crassidis also touched on the military value of improving space domain awareness, describing the current situation as “the wild wild west.”
“Our satellites are attacked every day — I can’t talk about specific details about them — but they are attacked every day,” Crassidis told The Spectrum. “So we want to try to mitigate any attacks that happen to satellites to make sure that they’re still functioning.”
Another area of interest lies between the Earth and around the moon. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Raymond says the exploratory activities of bodies such as NASA and its initiative to return to the moon are dependent on space domain awareness capabilities.
“I think for them to do their job, they have to have a domain that’s safe, secure, and stable,” Raymond said in a webinar on Jan. 19 hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But there are currently engineering hurdles to overcome before being able to achieve that end.
“The problem is, we can't see a lot of things around the moon right now,” Crassidis said. “So how do we put the sensors out there to understand what's going on out there, just like we're trying to understand here, and then also get situational awareness?”
With the same issues plaguing space domain awareness around the Earth and near the moon, Space Force and other labs like AFRL are seeking answers. That’s where UB comes in.
What does UB bring to the table?
The university currently houses a myriad of facilities relevant to space research including the UB Nano-satellite Laboratory (UB Nanosat), a student-run organization, and the Center for Multisource Information Fusion.
The latter focuses on systematically viewing data and information fusion processes, including information collection sources and sensors, core process enabling algorithms and the role of humans in overall system concepts and designs.
According to Crassidis, the CMIF is a world-renowned research facility and the only one of its kind in the U.S. “We do have some unique capabilities at UB that nobody else has,” he said.
Moises Sudit, a professor in the industrial and systems engineering department and the executive director of UB’s CMIF, is also a co-principal investigator supervising the project.
Sudit says that although data that can help improve space domain awareness exists, researchers must develop tools to better process that data.
“We are drowning in data yet starved for useful information,” he said. “This project will allow us to find actionable information for space decision-making that is otherwise buried among unusable noise.”
Crassidis says university researchers are already looking into other sources of data, such as polymeric data, to understand what other sensors could become useful for space domain awareness.
The challenges of gathering and processing data are ones suitable for the type of work that the university’s in-house facilities have done so far.
“How do we combine that information, a lot of things like that are we do with the Center for Multi-source information fusion,” Crassidis said.
The grant will also provide valuable research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Research and satellite missions launched by the student-run UBNL are open to interested UB students of all majors. However, the lab says it is unable to accommodate international students due to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
Graduate students, such as Ph.D. students, will benefit from the funding provided by the $5 million grant, according to Crassidis, though he maintains that unfunded students are just as welcome to do Master’s projects in collaboration with the space monitoring project as well.
Crassidis took some time to reflect on the moment UB was picked for the SURI.
Though he never doubted the strength of UB’s proposal, coming out of a pool of 44 proposals nationwide with one of two grants offered by the AFRL was still a pleasant surprise.
“I knew we had a strong proposal, but you never know with this,” Crassidis said. Obviously, the top universities in the country [are] going after that so for us to be able to say, hey, we beat out the top universities, I think is a statement.”
The principal investigator for the project cites the mentality and talent of his team as an instrumental factor in pushing the winning proposal through the door at the AFRL.
“We have a little chip on our shoulder too because we are UB, right? We're not in the top ten so we have this attitude of ‘bring it on.’ It felt great.”
Kyle Nguyen is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.