Space Force Enlists UT Austin to Help with Cutting-edge Research

Outer space has always been a warfighting domain. In the late 1950s, the first satellites were boosted to orbit on modified ballistic missiles that were originally intended to deliver nuclear warheads to the other side of the planet. The satellites were often telescopes the length of a school bus, but instead of orienting themselves to observe the majesty of the universe, they trained their focus back on Earth to keep tabs on Cold War adversaries. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, satellites continued to aid military personnel back on terra firma with GPS, high-definition imagery, and secure communication channels.

Space assets continue to be a critical component of America’s national security to this day. Although mid-century anxiety about laser battles on the final frontier have not yet come to pass, outer space remains a fiercely contested geopolitical arena that has raised concerns among America’s military brass about national security if the U.S. lost leadership in orbit. In 2019, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, establishing the U.S. Space Force as a sixth military branch dedicated to protecting the country’s interests beyond Earth. The formation of the Space Force raised a lot of eyebrows and invited comparison to the imperial lackeys in Star Wars, Star Trek, and Starship Troopers. But without a military branch dedicated to extra terrestrial conflict, the U.S. could fall behind rivals like China that have invested heavily in fully integrated military and space exploration capabilities.

The U.S. Space Force draws on decades of military experience in orbit from the Army, Air Force, U.S. Space Command, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other Department of Defense programs. Yet it also realized that collaboration with industry and academia would be key to its success. So, earlier this summer, the nation’s newest military branch signed a memorandum of understanding with UT Austin to help secure America’s future in space through cutting edge research and training of the next generation of Space Force recruits, known as Guardians.

“The next steps are figuring out how we are going to work together and how we can best help Space Force with the research and innovation that they’re going to be doing,” says Seth Wilk, the director of defense research advancement in UT’s Office of Vice President of Research.

Space Force launched its University Partnership Program earlier this year with the goal of teaming up with 11 universities to advance the branch’s strategic goals of maintaining American superiority in space, protecting America’s space assets, and ensuring the stability of the outer space environment. The University of North Dakota was the first to join the program and was soon followed by the University of Colorado, Purdue University, and most recently, UT Austin and UTEP. Each partner has unique strengths in aerospace research as well as a robust ROTC program that can be leveraged to train new Guardians in the skills they’ll need to adapt to emerging threats in outer space.

“From the UT perspective, we want to get ROTC cadets involved in research,” Wilk says. “We want them to already be familiar with these new topics that will be coming up so that they can grow to be leaders in the DOD, Air Force, and Space Force.”

Today, the U.S. military is less concerned about actual space combat, such as satellites intentionally crashing into each other—known as kinetic warfare—or the possibility that China or another country might put a nuclear weapon or high-powered laser in orbit. (Although, as Russia’s recent anti-satellite missile test reminded the world, the possibilities aren’t entirely out of the question.) Instead, Space Force is more interested in countering “soft” attacks, like hacked or jammed satellite communications and enabling more secure communications between satellites, better surveillance tools, and a more holistic understanding of the orbital environment.

“Their main interests are probably satellites and space situational awareness,” says Clint Dawson, the department chair of Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics at UT Austin. “We have a long history in doing space missions and knowledge of trajectory analysis and how to get rockets where they’re going in space. When they need that specific expertise then they come to us.”

The new partnership with Space Force will continue UT Austin’s long history of working with NASA, the Air Force, and defense contractors to improve space technologies. In addition to core competencies in aerospace engineering and other space related fields such as orbital dynamics, UT also has capabilities that can’t be found anywhere else. Moriba Jah, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, is a leading authority on space debris, which increasingly poses a threat to both civilian and military satellites. Furthermore, UT’s Aerospace Engineering department has access to one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which can be used to run complex simulations of the orbital environment.

The Space Force University Partnership Program is still in its infancy and the exact form the program will take at UT is still a work in progress. But Wilk and Dawson are optimistic it will be a powerful program for students and faculty—and our national security. In a best-case scenario, both Dawson and Wilk say they would love to see the partnership blossom into a brand-new research center focused on developing technologies for space security issues modeled after UT Austin’s existing Center for Space Research.

“An institute or research center can really help cross the bridge between the two entities to push the research forward and develop a workforce,” Wilk says. “I think there’s a lot of room for that, especially based on the amount of expertise we have at UT.”

CREDITS: Eileen Wu, The University of Texas at Austin

A previous version of this article mentioned that the supercomputers are located at the Oden Institute for Computational Sciences and Engineering. They are located at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

A previous version of this article referred to the National Reconnaissance Office as National Reconnaissance Organization.


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