Outer space has always been a battleground. In the late 1950s, the first satellites were propelled into orbit on modified ballistic missiles that were originally intended to carry nuclear warheads across 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 focused on Earth to keep an eye out for opponents of the Cold War. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, satellites continued to help military personnel return to land with GPS, high-definition images, and secure communication channels.
Space assets continue to be a critical component of United States national security to this day. While mid-century concern over laser battles on the Last Frontier has yet to subside, outer space remains a fiercely contested geopolitical arena that has sparked security concerns among the US military. national if the United States lost its leadership in orbit. In 2019, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, establishing the US Space Force as the 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 with the Imperial lackeys of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Spaceship soldiers. But without a military wing dedicated to extraterrestrial conflicts, the United States could fall behind rivals like China which have invested heavily in fully integrated military and space capabilities.
The US Space Force draws on decades of in-orbit military experience from the Army, Air Force, US Space Command, National Reconnaissance Organization, and other Department of Defense programs. Yet he also realized that collaboration with industry and academia would be key to his success. So earlier this summer, the country’s newest military wing 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 the Guardians.
âThe next steps are to determine how we are going to work together and how we can best help Space Force with the research and innovation that they are going to do,â said Seth Wilk, director of research advancement on the defense at the UT office. 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 U.S. superiority in space, protecting U.S. space assets, and ensure the stability of the space environment. The University of North Dakota was the first to join the program and was quickly followed by the University of Colorado, Purdue University and, more recently, UT Austin and UTEP. Each partner has unique strengths in aerospace research as well as a strong ROTC program that can be used to train new Guardians in the skills they will need to adapt to emerging threats in space.
âFrom UT’s perspective, we want to involve the ROTC cadets in the research,â says Wilk. “We want them to be already familiar with these new topics that will be covered so that they can become leaders of the DOD, Air Force and Space Force.”
Today, the U.S. military is less concerned with actual space combat, such as satellites intentionally crashing into each other – known as kinetic warfare – or the possibility that China or a another country puts a nuclear weapon or a high-powered laser into orbit. (Although, as Russia’s recent anti-satellite missile test reminded the world, the possibilities are not entirely out of the question.) Instead, Space Force is more interested in combating them. “soft” attacks, such as hacked or scrambled satellite communications and to enable more secure communications between satellites, better surveillance tools and a more comprehensive understanding of the orbital environment.
“Their main interests are probably satellites and situational awareness,” says Clint Dawson, director of the Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics department at UT Austin. âWe have a long history of conducting space missions and a knowledge of trajectory analysis and how to get rockets to where they go in space. When they need this specific expertise, 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 basic skills in aerospace engineering and other space related fields such as orbital dynamics, UT also has capabilities that cannot be found anywhere else. Moriba Jah, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics, is the world’s leading authority on space debris, which is increasingly a threat to civilian and military satellites. Additionally, UT’s Aerospace Engineering Department has access to one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers at the Odin Institute of Computer Science and Engineering, 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 shape the program will take at UT is still in progress. But Wilk and Dawson are optimistic it will be a powerful program for students and faculty – and our national security. At best, Dawson and Wilk say they would like to see the partnership flourish into a whole new research center focused on developing technologies for space security issues, modeled on the Space Research Center of UT Austin.
âA research institute or center can really help bridge the gap between the two entities to advance research and develop a workforce,â explains Wilk. “I think there’s a lot of room for that, especially given how much expertise we have at UT.”
CREDITS: Eileen Wu, University of Texas at Austin