Published: Aug. 21, 2023 By

We want to advance civil space traffic management and planetary defense for asteroids."

The University of Colorado Boulder is leading a major Air Force project to track objects orbiting near the moon.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is awarding a Space University Research Initiative worth up to $5 million over five years to the multi-university CU Boulder-led team. Also collaborating on the research are Texas A&M University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and L3Harris Technologies.

The goal is to improve space domain awareness in high Earth orbits – above geosynchronous – and in the vicinity of the moon, according to Marcus Holzinger, an associate professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and the principal investigator for the grant.

“We want to advance civil space traffic management and planetary defense for asteroids, and assist the U.S. Space Force with space tracking,” Holzinger said. “This is truly a dual use that improves timeliness and the quality of decisions as a benefit to humanity writ large.”

An additional CU Boulder partner on the project is the university’s Center for National Security Initiatives. NSI will facilitate sponsor events and engagement, monitor cost-performance objectives, and identify adjacent defense opportunities to further advance the research and expand its national security footprint.

The project presents unique and complex challenges for all members of the team, said Zach Sunberg, an assistant professor in Smead Aerospace who is also a team member.

“Space is not an intuitive domain. We will need to use innovative algorithms, computational techniques, and experimental research to make this happen. This really brings together experts in areas ranging from orbital dynamics, to human computer interaction, to high tech sensors,” Sunberg said.

NASA and the Air Force currently maintain systems to track asteroids and man-made objects in Low Earth Orbit for military readiness and to prevent collisions of satellites but have more limited capabilities for monitoring objects around the moon.

Up until very recently, that has not been a problem as hardly any missions orbited the moon. The recent explosion of commercial and government projects at higher orbits makes the current system unsustainable. Unfortunately, existing tracking systems cannot be easily adapted for the purpose.

“The current systems are all legacy technology. The algorithms that underpin them depend on Keplerian physics, two-body motion – the Earth and one other body. The region we’re talking about is heavily affected by the gravity of the moon and the sun as well, and the dynamics we use to predict movement begin to fail,” Holzinger said.

The grant will include fundamental and applied research joining telescopes, sensor technology, and artificial intelligence to detect, characterize, and track spacefaring objects in high orbits to improve decision making for humans on the ground.

“We need to know is this a spacecraft or a natural object and where is it going,” Holzinger said. “This improves safety for civilian and commercial space flights and can help us spot asteroids that may be on a collision course with Earth.”

Sunberg said the project has real potential for positive, long-lasting impacts.

“Humanity has the potential to harness the space around the Earth and the moon for a variety of benefits. However, as this area becomes increasingly occupied with satellites controlled by users with different goals, it is more and more important to maintain our situational awareness so it is a safe and useful environment for all. This work will develop technologies critical to that goal,” Sunberg said.

Additional researchers on the grant include Scott Palo at CU Boulder; Terry Alfriend, Kyle DeMars, and John Junkins of Texas A&M University; and Karen Feigh of Georgia Tech.