Outer space has always been a combat domain. In the late 1950s, the first satellites were rocketed into orbit on modified ballistic missiles that were originally intended to send nuclear warheads to the other side of the planet. The satellites were often school bus-length telescopes, but instead of orienting themselves to observe the majesty of the universe, they focused on Earth to keep tabs on Cold War adversaries. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, satellites continued to help military personnel return to solid ground with GPS, high-definition imagery, and secure communication channels.
Space assets continue to be a vital part of US national security to this day. Although mid-century anxiety over laser battles over the final frontier has yet to materialize, outer space remains a fiercely contested geopolitical arena that has raised security concerns among the U.S. 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 nation’s interests beyond Earth. The formation of the Space Force raised many eyebrows and invited comparison with the Imperial lackeys of Star Wars, Star Trekand Spaceship soldiers. But without a military branch dedicated to extraterrestrial conflict, the United States could fall behind rivals like China that have invested heavily in fully integrated military and space exploration capabilities.
The US Space Force draws on decades of in-orbit military experience from the Army, Air Force, US Space Command, National Reconnaissance Office and other Department of defense. Yet he also realized that collaboration with industry and academia would be key to his 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 the training of the next generation of Space Force recruits, known as Guardians.
“The next steps are figuring out how we’re going to work together and how we can best help Space Force with the research and innovation that they’re going to do,” says Seth Wilk, director of defense research advancement at the UT office. as vice-president of research.
Space Force launched its University Partnership Program earlier this year with the goal of partnering with 11 universities to advance the branch’s strategic goals of maintaining American superiority in space, protecting American space assets, and to 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 robust ROTC program that can be leveraged to train new Guardians in the skills they will need to adapt to emerging threats in space.
“From a UT perspective, we want to involve ROTC cadets in research,” says Wilk. “We want them to be already familiar with these new topics that are going to come up so they can become leaders in the DOD, Air Force and Space Force.”
Today, the US military is less concerned with actual space combat, such as intentionally crashing into each other – so-called 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 aren’t entirely out of the question.) Instead, the Space Force is more interested in countering attacks.” “soft”, such as hacked or scrambled satellite communications and to enable more secure communications between satellites, better monitoring tools and a more comprehensive understanding of the orbital environment.
“Their main interests are probably satellites and space situational awareness,” says Clint Dawson, chair of the department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at UT Austin. “We have a long history in space missions and we know about trajectory analysis and how to get rockets to where they are going in space. When they need that 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 a leading authority on space debris, which increasingly poses 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 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 shape the program will take at UT is still in the works. But Wilk and Dawson are optimistic it will be a powerful program for students and faculty — and our national security. Ideally, Dawson and Wilk say they’d like to see the partnership blossom into an all-new research center focused on developing technologies for space security issues modeled on the existing Space Research Center in the United States. UT Austin.
“A research institute or center can really help bridge the two entities to advance research and develop a workforce,” says Wilk. “I think there’s a lot of room for that, especially given the amount of expertise we have at UT.”
CREDITS: Eileen Wu, University of Texas at Austin
A previous version of this article mentioned that the supercomputers were 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 the national recognition organization.