By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When the 21st Space Wing Operations Group needed some research done in relation to broadening mission capabilities for Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance Systems, coming up with a cost effective method presented a challenge.
Across Colorado Springs, at the United States Air Force Academy, cadets faced their own challenge. They needed to find projects during the last year of school allowing them to get experience in their chosen career fields. What better way to gain a win-win solution than to have the Wing and the Academy work together, providing excellent research and real-world work experience all in one mutually beneficial project.
The driving force behind the partnership is a desire to increase mission effectiveness and operate the GEODSS longer in adverse weather conditions. The system plays a critical role in tracking objects in deep space, everything from operational satellites to small debris caused by satellite breakups.
To perform its mission, GEODSS uses one-meter telescopes equipped with state of the art digital camera technology. Each of the three operational GEODSS sites has three telescopes to use either alone or together. Since they are ground-based optical systems, weather, lighting conditions, and cloud cover could impact effectiveness in certain situations.
The telescopes are housed in domes, similar to those used for typical observatories. The dome features a shutter for the telescope to peer through and that opening is the heart of the issue. For example, GEODSS can become functionally degraded during high winds and have limited capability during those times. The cadets tested dome models in a wind tunnel with the shutter at minimum and maximum openings with a variety of wind speeds, some up to 60 kph.
Dean MacNicol, 21st Space Wing chief of maintenance, said certain environmental factors, like heavy wind, may compromise the systems. In the course of research, he hoped to discover whether the systems could remain open longer or if they truly have to shut down at prescribed wind speeds.
“The premise is looking at limits,” MacNicol said. “Are there areas to maximize capabilities to improve on the mission? What are the limits to the domes and can we keep them open longer?”
The 21st OG operates the GEODSS, but the question leading to the research started with Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Center’s Space Superiority Division. The thought was that operational capability could be expanded if the wind limitations were broadened. That’s where Dr. Chris Randell comes on the scene.
Randell is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He was chief of curriculum, USAFA Department of Engineering Mechanics and also was chief engineer, Opticals Branch, Ground Based Space Surveillance Division. His current role is as lead space enterprise analyst for The MITRE Corporation, a not-for-profit company operating multiple federally funded research and development centers. With ties to both the GEODSS operations and the Academy, it figures he would make the connection that the entities could beneficially work together.
Randell knew USAFA sought opportunities for cadets to gain real world experience to the benefit of the Air Force. He approached the school’s Department of Aeronautics to see if something could be worked out.
“This was made in heaven for them,” Randell said.
Randell contacted Dr. Thomas McLaughlin, director, USAFA Aeronautics Research Center, and Tim Siefers, instructor of aeronautics and team leader for the cadet project. They decided the initial round of research would serve as a type of proof of concept regarding whether wind at particular speeds would cause the GEODSS domes to lift off of their bases or become crushed by wind pressure.
MacNicol said that while low cost is certainly a positive aspect of working with the cadets, there are others. The young cadets bring energy and innovation to the research.
“They are not fettered by thinking in the box,” he said.
“It gets them excited because we really use what they are giving us. It’s real-world work,” said Jeff Wiseheart, 21st OG technical director. “It is being put to use, they are helping us. This is big.”
Working on a project like this one is a positive experience for the cadets. Randell said it gives them a chance to see how their work is used in a real-world mission situation.
“This could turn into a larger relationship,” Randell said. “Opportunities are out there.”