August 1, 2013

Maintenance personnel from Northeastern Junior College combine efforts with Air Force Academy experts who were in Sterling to oversee the completion of the Falcon Telescope Network observatory which has been installed at North Campus. The telescope has a dome lid which can be opened remotely by others across the state, nation and world in order to observe the night sky. It is one of 12 sites that are part of the network, which is overseen by the United States Air Force Academy. (Courtesy Photo)

STERLING — In the not so far away future, elementary age students in a science class will be able to access Australia’s night sky from a telescope located on the campus of Northeastern Junior College located here. As a matter of fact, students in 11 other locations across Colorado, the nation, and the world, may study the sky via the web using photos taken from the same telescope. And in turn, local students will have access to the galaxy’s nightly landscape from 11 other locations.

One of the 12 telescopes designed for satellite tracking and characterization was installed in Sterling last week as part of the Falcon Telescope Network research project being put in place by the United States Air Force Academy. The Falcon Telescope Network will eventually provide Northeastern students and area K-12 students with the opportunity to explore space, access raw data and do original research that will contribute to the overall 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.  The cost of the observatory is approximately $165,000. Northeastern was responsible for the basic structure to house it, which was estimated at costing in the neighborhood of $22,000.

Dr. Francis Chun, the director of the USAFA’s Center for Space Situational Awareness Research, was at Northeastern last week, along with a few other individuals to help oversee the construction of the dome topped observatory which now sits on the college’s North Campus and houses the telescope. 

According to Chun, Northeastern Junior College is one of 12 sites from across the world where 20-inch telescopes will be placed. The telescopes are housed in clam-shell observatories with all the technology to look through the telescope and monitor activity housed in a nearby location. The sites were strategically chosen to provide the best eyes into all of space at any given time.

“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 12 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 said 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. The telescope network provides some huge opportunities for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) instruction and engagement with local and area school districts.

In addition to Northeastern’s campus and the USAFA, three other Colorado colleges are part of the Falcon Telescope Network, including Fort Lewis College, Durango; Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction and Otero Junior College, LaJunta.

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. For example, a  high school chemistry teacher from Bellefonte, PA plans to use the Falcon Telescope project at her school. By developing grade-level curriculum that ties into state standards,  teachers there plan to incorporate the telescope project into their classes and build multi-disciplinary ties into other subjects. This will be done through field trips involving hands-on experiences and science-related events surrounding the use and discoveries of the Falcon Telescope Network.

Stanton Gartin, Vice President of Academics at Northeastern Junior College said that as the network  progresses and then is finished, area school districts will be invited and encouraged to utilize the observatory. Northeastern will also be incorporating the observatory into some of its science and math related curriculum.

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 NJC 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.