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AFRL announces winners of Space University Research Initiative funding opportunity

The Air Force Research Laboratory, via its basic research office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, announced December 17, the winners of the newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program – a first step in improving the transition of critical concepts from academia into revolutionary new military technologies for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force (USSF). (Courtesy graphic)

The Air Force Research Laboratory, via its basic research office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, announced December 17, the winners of the newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program – a first step in improving the transition of critical concepts from academia into revolutionary new military technologies for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force (USSF). (Courtesy graphic)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO (AFRL) – The Air Force Research Laboratory, via its basic research office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, announced December 17, the winners of the newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program – a first step in improving the transition of critical concepts from academia into revolutionary new military technologies for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force (USSF).

“Our way of warfare depends on space superiority and AFRL has a long history of research and development in support of this domain. With the recent standup of the USSF, along with the emergence of U.S. Space Command and new energy in the commercial space sector, we have exciting opportunities to modernize the way we lead and manage S&T,” wrote AFRL Commander, Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle in her 2021 Commander’s Intent.

In March 2021, the AFRL enterprise answered the challenge to accelerate change and modernize its management of space-related science by releasing the first funding opportunity of the SURI. The Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) advertised AFRL-funded awards up to $1,000,000 per year per award spanning three to five years in the areas of Space Logistics and Mobility and Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

“AFRL is all in on supporting the Space Force via its activities in basic and applied research and advanced development. Expanding our partnerships and linkages with academia through the SURI program and its focused efforts is an exemplar of focused space innovation efforts needed by the DAF and our Airmen and Guardians,” said Dr. Timothy J. Bunning, AFRL Chief Technology Officer.

SURI is co-funded by basic and applied research dollars, and thus expands the scope of work to include both science and technology development. The SURI program supports multidisciplinary research efforts, ideally creating synergies to speed DOD-relevant research and development by directing basic research toward applications that meet USSF needs and challenges.

Of 40 full proposals received against the FOA, AFRL selected two multi-institute teams to participate in the first class of the SURI pilot program.

Topic 1: Space Logistics and Mobility

The intent of this topic is to identify basic research enablers for the space logistics and servicing paradigm to include assembly, refueling, repairing and repurposing. These activities can have implications on many aspects of current satellites and the way they are both designed and operated.

According to AFOSR Program Officer for Dynamical Systems and Control Theory Dr. Frederick Leve, “Current DOD Space assets last longer than their commissions and take up valuable space in the GEO belt. Either these satellites need to be parked in an end-of-life orbit or they need to be serviced for their life to be extended.”

The winning proposal, Breaking the “Launch Once, Use Once” Paradigm was submitted by Principal Investigator, Prof. Howard Choset, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) along with six other partners from CMU, Texas A&M, University of New Mexico, and Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Using their combined expertise in artificial intelligence, robotics (hard and soft), additive manufacturing, astrodynamics, estimation theory, control, and space systems, the team seeks to address the non-existent capability of On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) in the geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) belt.

Success for this team means advancing transition-capable fundamental and applied research for OSAM and preparing it to transition to the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate and Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Topic 2: Space Domain Awareness

The intent of this topic is to identify basic research enablers for innovative SDA applications pertaining to sensors and measurement strategies, data fusion and autonomy. USSF is responsible for tracking objects in space, providing information to all satellite operators on potential collisions, and maintaining awareness of threatening situations.

This responsibility becomes more complex as the U.S. returns to the moon alongside numerous other nations and commercial interests. These new activities not only increase the number of objects in space but also the volume that must be monitored.

Because of the large distances involved (most USSF satellites are 36,000 km above the Earth, and the moon is ten times further than that), a detailed understanding of the thousands of objects on orbit requires increasingly sophisticated methods to detect them in the first place, confidently identify them, predict their trajectories, and understand their characteristics and activities.

“Low earth orbit, geosynchronous orbit, and trajectories to the moon each have their own challenges from a space domain awareness perspective,” said Dr. Jaime A. Stearns, research scientist in AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. “We have incredible capabilities today, but basic research is critical to making sure we meet the challenges we are seeing now and anticipating in the future.”

Prof. John L. Crassidis, University of Buffalo submitted the winning proposal titled, “Space Object Understanding and Reconnaissance of Complex Events (SOURCE)” along with six partners from The Pennsylvania State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Purdue University.

“The participants on this SURI proposal share diverse expertise and are world leaders in their respective fields,” says Stearns. “Their approach uses a combination of theoretical and experimental studies to answer key questions in the quest for enhanced space domain awareness.”

Partnering to Build the Best Team

AFRL topic chiefs play a critical role in SURI’s success by providing research guidance, encouraging the development of new talent, and supporting the transition of research products into DAF applications.

In total, SURI will bring 14 researchers and roughly 20 students from eight universities and one small business into the AFRL ecosystem to work on challenges of space power. Three of those universities — Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Purdue University — are also part of the USSF University Partnership Program (UPP) established in 2021. The UPP seeks to establish opportunities for world-class research, advanced academic degrees, and workforce and leadership development for USSF Guardians.

“We are excited to kick-off this new initiative as one AFRL supporting two services that strengthens the way we lead and manage the transition from academic basic research, through expanded AFRL and industry partnerships, to applications for our Air Force and Space Force,” said AFOSR Chief Scientist, Dr. William P. Roach.

For more information about the Space University Research Initiative, visit https://afresearchlab.com/technology/space-university-research-initiative/

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) expands the horizon of scientific knowledge through its leadership and management of the Department of the Air Force's basic research program. As a vital component of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), AFOSR's mission is to discover, shape and champion basic research that profoundly impacts the future Air and Space Forces. AFOSR accomplishes its mission through global investment in advanced discovery research efforts in relevant scientific areas. Central to AFOSR's strategy is the transfer of the fruits of basic research to industry, the supplier of Air Force acquisitions; to the academic community, which can lead the way to still more accomplishment; and to the other directorates of AFRL that carry the responsibility for applied research leading to acquisition.