OJC and U.S. Air Force Academy team up to locate Falcon Telescope Network project at OJC
Otero Junior College is set to become one of 13 locations from across the globe that will be part of the Falcon Telescope Network, a network of sites hosting telescopes for satellite tracking and characterization. The project will support satellite-tracking research at the United States Air Force Academy and provide OJC students and area K-12 students with the opportunity to explore space using the telescope. Students will be able to access raw data and do original research that will contribute to the body of knowledge known about space.
Funded by a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to the United States Air Force Academy’s Center for Space Situational Awareness Research, the Falcon Telescope Network will further research by the USAFA on characterizing satellites through simultaneous observations taken from multiple telescope sites. The telescope network will form the basis for the cadets’ education and research program in space situational awareness, which is a critical national security issue.
Dr. Francis Chun, the director of the USAFA’s Center for Space Situational Awareness Research, was at OJC last week, along with a group of other partners, to brief OJC administrators on the progress of the telescope’s installation and to look at the site chosen for the telescope’s observatory.
According to Chun, Otero Junior College is one of 13 sites from across the world where 20-inch telescopes will be placed. The telescopes will be housed in clam-shell observatories with all the technology to look through the telescope and monitor activity housed in a nearby location.
“This is not the kind of telescope that you look through the lens,” explained Chun. “With this telescope, students will use computers and view objects on computer screens to identify and track objects in space. Everything we capture with the telescope will come to us as a digital image and thus can be viewed and analyzed just like any other photographic digital image,” he said.
Chun explained that the 20-inch telescope is powerful enough to look at existing planets, refine orbits, search for planets and track objects in real time. “The sky is really the limit with this telescope; we don’t know yet what all can be seen with this piece of equipment.”
The purpose of the collaborative project, and multiple global locations of sites, is to help the USAFA research and track over 22,000 objects that are currently known to be in orbit around the earth. To achieve a true picture of what is in orbit; simultaneous coverage is required from many angles.
“We will combine the data received from all 13 locations, looking at the different angles and different spectrums to determine shape, size, what material the object is made of and the orbit of the object,” said Chun.
“Without knowledge of what is in orbit around the Earth, all satellite systems from the International Space Station to GPS and Direct TV satellites will be more vulnerable to collisions and natural space weather hazards,” explained Chun. “The Air Force routinely tracks over 22,000 objects on a daily to weekly basis, but we believe there are hundreds of thousands of space objects in orbit that are too small for our current sensors to detect. Over time, space will only get more congested and as more countries launch satellites, more collisions are likely to occur if there is not a good system of monitoring. If those events happen, we all will experience negative impacts on our lives that would include, but not limited to banking, weather forecasting, navigating and communications,” he explained.
Chun stated that because all of the objects that are being tracked are ‘public domain’ and are not ‘classified’ by the nation’s military, this opened up the opportunity for USAFA to partner with the educational institutions where the telescopes are being placed and offer educational opportunities for the students at those institutions and their surrounding communities.
In addition to Otero Junior College and the USAFA, three other Colorado colleges will become a part of the Falcon Telescope Network, including Fort Lewis College, Durango; Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction and Northeastern Junior College, Sterling.
The other partners in the project from the United States will be Penn State in University Park, Penn., and Kauai Community College in Hawaii. In addition to incorporating the Falcon Telescope Network into the university’s astronomy program for education and research, Penn State has already put in place an extensive K-12 outreach program throughout the state of Pennsylvania to allow students of all ages the opportunity to explore space in ‘real time’ and have access to raw data that is collected.
Accompanying Dr. Chun last week on his visit to OJC was Allison Fox, an assistant with the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center and Julie Coder, a high school chemistry teacher from Bellefonte, Penn.
Fox and Coder each spoke to OJC administrators, science faculty and STEM grant personnel about how they will be utilizing the Falcon Telescope research and recommended similar models for OJC.
“At Penn State our students will be contributing to the global effort to catalog potential hazardous objects in space,” said Penn State’s Allison Fox. “We will become involved in some research projects that have never before been possible. In addition, we’re planning to develop professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers and provide hands-on experiences for their students.”
Fox went on to say that beyond the classrooms, Penn State intends to expand the science literacy to the community, allowing amateur astronomers the opportunity to collect data as well. “Those who become involved with the program will have the opportunity to take photos from space and then retrieve and use their own photos. They too can become part of this world-wide team of space explorers, collecting and cataloging digital images from space.”
“This is a very exciting project for Penn State to be involved in,” said Fox, “and to help promote the excitement of making discoveries; we plan on setting up some competitions with other colleges, such as OJC, to see who can discover the most unknown objects in space. We fully expect to discover and begin to track never-before-seen objects,” she said.
Julie Coder, a high school chemistry teacher from Bellefonte, Penn., shared with the group how she plans to use the Falcon Telescope project at her school. “We are in the process of developing grade-level curriculum that will tie into state standards so that our teachers can incorporate the telescope project into their classes and build multi-disciplinary ties into other subjects. We foresee lots of field trips, hands-on experiences and science-related events surrounding the use and discoveries of the Falcon Telescope Network,” she said.
Coder stated that she would be happy to work with the OJC STEM project (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to create some collaborative projects between Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Dr. Chun explained that the USAFA in Colorado Springs would be the hub of operations when the project is fully operational in August 2014. The Cadet Space Operations Center will be the central node and will establish a usage schedule for the telescopes for the other users. He said that even when OJC is not using the telescope exclusively, students will be able to monitor in real-time what users at the USAFA, Penn State or other sites across the world are doing.
In addition to the five sites in Colorado and Penn State, the other worldwide sites currently planned will include one site in Chile, up to three sites in Australia, one site in South Africa and one site at the International Space University in France.
At the conclusion of the meeting with the Falcon Telescope Network’s team and OJC administrators, science faculty and physical plant staff, a goal was set for April 2013 to have the OJC site built and operational. The telescope will be located on the north end of the OJC campus between the Physical Plant storage units and the Rattler Field. The operational site on campus for tracking and viewing images from the telescope will be determined within a few weeks.
“Otero Junior College was chosen as a site for the Falcon Telescope Network project because of its geographical location as well the college’s interest in aiding in their education and public outreach programs,” said Chun. “We hope to provide OJC with a permanent telescope observatory that they can use for course work, laboratories and open houses to excite and inspire students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
Jim Rizzuto, president of Otero Junior College said that the college is glad to be a part of the global collaboration.
“We are excited to be part of this global collaboration of establishing a network of tracking telescopes throughout the United States and other regions of the world. The construction of an observatory on the campus of OJC will lend itself to this network as well as providing students at OJC as well as students throughout the area with a rare opportunity to be part of this exciting opportunity to study astronomy via this state of the art equipment,” said Rizzuto.
The construction phase of the Falcon Telescope Network project at OJC is expected to be completed by April 2013.