Published: Oct. 3, 2023 By

The space economy is booming, and the University of Colorado Boulder is at the forefront of a major federal funding initiative aimed at expanding science and engineering knowledge and workforce development for projects centered on operations Beyond Geostationary Orbit (xGEO) and Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

Leading this endeavor is Marcus Holzinger, a J. Negler Endowed Professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. He is heading a new, $5 million, up to five-year research award with an option for an additional $1 million and further follow on funding.

The grant will go toward an array of diverse activities, including lunar-focused astrodynamics and sensing research, conflict simulation, and expanding workforce pathways related to the space workforce.

It may sound like science fiction, but NASA, the U.S. Space Force (USSF), and a rapidly growing number of private businesses envision significant potential for economic development on and around the Moon.

“There is a massive growth forecast in the space economy over the next 10-15 years; it’s going to double and then double again,” said Holzinger.

Called STARLIT, the grant brings together an array of leading aerospace universities, including CU Boulder, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, University of Texas Austin, and the University at Buffalo as well as an industry advisory board of 11 aerospace firms.

“We’re bringing together all the right people. These collaborators are experts in astrodynamics, space traffic management, data fusion, and cognitive engineering. It’s really an amazing team,” Holzinger said.

An additional CU Boulder partner 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 is being administered by the Universities Space Research Association and funded by the U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

Growing People

One focus of the funding opportunity is dramatically expanding the space workforce. The funding aims to create new graduate education pathways, including summer research initiatives with minority serving institutions, student employment and mentorship opportunities, and internship programs through community colleges.

“We need more folks to go into astrodynamics. CU Boulder and other universities have increased enrollment, but there are probably two job openings for every person in these core areas,” Holzinger said. “How do we help direct students into these careers?”

Expanding Research

The grant will also boost efforts on orbital propagation and mission design for satellites and space vehicles that travel beyond low Earth orbit, including to the Moon.

Although the United States made multiple successful landings on the Moon, the drive for a space economy demands scalable toolsets and technology transfer to simplify the process and improve safety, according to Dan Scheeres, a distinguished professor of aerospace at CU Boulder and co-investigator on the grant.

“Over the last decade there have been significant advances in our understanding of the dynamics and navigation of spacecraft in cis-lunar space. However, many of these advances have not made their way into the operational tools that USSF and commercial operators use. This research is focused on transitioning these tools and concepts into some of the day-to-day operations and capabilities for cis-lunar space,” Scheeres said.

Conflict Simulations

A major reason for expanded interest in the Moon is the discovery of frozen water at the Lunar South Pole. It represents a potential game changer for space exploration, making it much easier to sustain human life on the Moon and beyond.

That creates new opportunities and challenges. With more nations and businesses targeting the Moon for economic development, the potential for conflict between them is growing. As part of the grant’s research focus, the team aims to develop new decision-making tools to avoid conflict and strategic surprise.

“This is about nation states and companies interacting and competing diplomatically and economically,” Holzinger said. “With the resources we’ve now discovered on the Moon, these are important questions that have never been explored. We’re going to learn a lot.”

As human and robotic space missions continue to expand, Holzinger is excited about the opportunities the grant presents to positively contribute to the future of science and engineering.

“This isn’t just sending people to the Moon, but engaging in economic activity there,” Holzinger said. “The first space race was about national pride and prestige. This second space race is about durable, sustainable human economic activity there long term.”