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Fort Lewis College joins telescope network that could help prevent a demolition derby in space

The current FLC Observatory will be getting a partner as the U.S. Air Force Academy will provide a new telescope to Fort Lewis.
The current FLC Observatory will be getting a partner as the U.S. Air Force Academy will provide a new telescope to Fort Lewis.

DURANGO, CO (7 November 2011) - Since the advent of space exploration and satellite technology the area just above Earth’s atmosphere is turning into something resembling a busy highway in the middle of a junkyard. Knowing what’s flying around our planet and keeping the country’s satellites out of harm’s way is a critical national security issue. Helping in this national security issue is a newly formed partnership between higher education institutions in Colorado and Chile, including Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO.

The telescope network, called the Falcon Telescope Network, will identify, track and study the objects that reside around the planet, man-made or otherwise. Along with Fort Lewis, the other members of the network in Colorado include Colorado Mesa University, Otero Junior College and Northeast Junior College, and the project will be led by the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Center for Space Situational Awareness Research (CSSAR). A fifth telescope partner will be the University of La Serena and the Mamalluca Observatory in Chile.

CSSAR will provide telescopes and detection technology, and the other institutions in the network will provide land, electricity and an Internet connection. The data gathered from the various sites will be analyzed at the Center for Space Situational Awareness Research. Though the telescope network will not be moving any satellites on their own, the data it provides may help other space organizations prevent collisions with objects ranging from the International Space Station to GPS satellites.

“The project is focused on this idea of developing a catalog of 'fingerprints' of small objects,” says FLC Professor of Physics & Engineering Dr. Ryan Haaland. “And, as importantly, the algorithms on super computers that use these 'light' fingerprints to understand more about the object without being able to see the physical details of it. Naturally, when something 'new' appears on the scene, then we should be able to determine the orbital parameters (how high, etc.) and if it's something natural or man-made. Given the growth of micro-satellites, it's only going to get more crowded up in space. So keeping track of all of these objects, whether they are operational satellites, 'junk' or something else, is going to be very important given our reliance on space systems.”

Researchers believe there may be hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting the Earth, some too small to be detected by the sensors currently in place. Even small objects can do damage to a satellite when the objects are traveling at speeds over 10,000 miles per hour, as some orbital bodies do.

Beyond national security, the Falcon Telescope Network offers Fort Lewis College students some unprecedented educational opportunities. Far from just learning theory, students involved in the network are doing real world, hands-on work that will make an immediate impact.

“Educationally, the implications are incredible,” says Dr. Haaland. “We hope this expands the exposure our students get to the space industry. We, as a nation, are increasingly reliant on satellites and the information they provide. Seeing these telescopes applied to practical tasks such as this and getting our students involved in it gives them great exposure to an industry and potentially an avenue into the field for internships and eventually jobs.”

Durango represents a great location for the telescope network as this part of the state has some of the darkest skies in an easily accessible area. Further, Dr. Haaland has a close working relationship with the U.S. Air Force Academy as he taught there, rising to the chair of the Academy’s Department of Physics.

Dr. Haaland is looking for the most suitable site for the telescope and hopes to have the system in place by summer 2012.


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