Published: Sept. 10, 2021

Header image: Graduate students Michael Klonowski, left, and Daniel Aguilar-Marsillach, right, work in the Raytheon Space & Intelligence Vision, Autonomy, and Decision Research Lab at CU Boulder, which studies new methods for tracking and managing satellite traffic in space. (Credit: CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science) 

The University of Colorado Boulder has received a $2 million gift from The Anschutz Foundation to support the university’s diverse research in aerospace and national defense—from tracking and protecting satellites in orbit to improving the security of mobile devices.

The effort dovetails with a new research partnership between the CU system and the U.S. Space Force that was announced Aug. 20. 

The recent award and research partnership will bolster the efforts of CU Boulder’s Center for National Security Initiatives (NSI). Launched in 2019, NSI brings together the work of more than 40 faculty members in engineering, computer science, physics and more, with a focus on keeping people safe in an increasingly connected world. 

“For generations, CU Boulder’s researchers and alumni have led the way in humanity’s exploration of the solar system,” said CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano. “Their research in aerospace has also led to technologies that improve the lives of people right here on Earth. The Anschutz Foundation gift, coupled with the new U.S. Space Force partnership, allows us to continue inspiring new scientists and engineers to solve real-world problems.” 

The commitments showcase the state of Colorado’s growing role as a national leader in defense and space exploration, said Christian Anschutz, president of The Anschutz Foundation. The state boasts the largest aerospace industry in the country on a per capita basis.

“Businesses across Colorado face an urgent need for trained professionals to design and operate the spacecraft of the future, develop new autonomous vehicles and protect us from the threat of cyberattacks,” said Anschutz, who earned his bachelor’s degree in history from CU Boulder in 2000. “We’re working with CU Boulder to train the next generation of leaders who will build on the state’s legacy as a center of innovation.”

Iain Boyd, director of NSI, noted that the gift underscores how universities can help the United States address new challenges, such as safeguarding the more than 3,000 satellites in orbit from cyberattacks. People depend on these spacecraft for communications, navigation and more.

“Advanced technology continues to play an increased role in national security, and the pace of advancement is ever-increasing,” said Boyd, a professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. “NSI seeks to create new opportunities by evolving existing, fundamental research capabilities at CU and applying them to the challenges of national security.”

Future leaders

Boyd added that the gift will help CU Boulder recruit new research associates who will add depth and breadth to the campus’s research capabilities. Currently, the state’s aerospace sector employs about 33,000 people spread across 300 companies, most of which are small businesses. According to Boyd, that number is only going to grow.

“The expansion of research opportunities in the national security domain enabled by The Anschutz Foundation gift will directly result in the graduation of a growing number of students with critical expertise needed by the aerospace and defense sector in Colorado and across the nation,” he said.

NSI researchers have already made important contributions in developing new technologies that will improve the lives of people everywhere. Researchers at CU Boulder, for example, have led efforts to design fleets of autonomous vehicles that monitor tornadoes and may one day conduct search and rescue operations deep underground. 

Marcus Holzinger, associate professor in the Ann and HJ Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences department, recently spoke to the U.S. Senate about efforts to track the locations of orbiting satellites—and prevent them from colliding in space. And Boyd leads a $15 million NASA research effort to study hypersonic entry vehicles that enable exploration of planets and moons. 

The NSI team is focused on recruiting research associates and training students in a variety of fields including hypersonics, autonomous systems, space domain awareness, positioning-navigation-and-timing, cybersecurity, radio-frequency engineering and geospatial data analytics.

“The expansion of NSI activities through the hiring of research associates will significantly broaden the research and educational opportunities available to our students while expanding our research impact and enabling increased partnerships with the aerospace sector,” Boyd said.