Cal Poly just became the first university to sign a data sharing agreement with the military’s U.S. Strategic Command.
The newly-inked partnership helps formalize a relationship between Central Coast college students and airmen at Vandenberg.
The Vandenberg-based 18th Space Control Squadron tracks more than 23,000 softball-size objects floating around in space, traveling up to 20 times the speed of sound. These include more than 1,300 satellites, the International Space Station, and other items often known as debris that move through space at speeds up to 18,000 mph.
“Hey look, we think that these two objects are getting close you may want to take a look at it. It’s that kind of notification that we’re going to receive and then we’ll be able to receive the data that’s associated with it and the students can do the analysis,” said John Bellardo, Cal Poly CubeSat Lab’s Director.
That means students will now have a better understanding of where satellites are when they orbit the planet and how to avoid a collision.
“When they have access to better data they can do a better job avoiding satellites running into each other. Some of the satellites have the ability to move around a little bit so if we know in advance that they’re going to collide we can maneuver the spacecraft a little bit to avoid that,” explains Bellardo.
Cal Poly joins more than 100 commercial and foreign nations working together to expand space situational awareness.
“Typically those projects are reserved for big names in the industry. Students don’t get to touch that kind of stuff so it’s really exciting to hear that we get to work with a bunch of that stuff here on campus,” said grad student Nicholas Bonafede.
For students, the more data the better.
“More data is always helpful. The more we can know about the missions that we’re designing for, the more we can design for future ones. If we can understand what the spacecraft is going through, what kinds of maneuvers we’re going to have to make to avoid collisions, that allows us to design our spacecraft to do that better preemptively,” said Bonafede.
Officials say the first-of-its-kind partnership will give students hands-on experience working with the four CubeSats currently in orbit and how they interact with other satellites. With a nearly 20-year history of launches and packaging other CubeSats for launch, Cal Poly has developed a solid relationship with officials at Vandenberg.
“Having access to more realistic data and being put in the situations to operate the spacecraft, using the data from Vandenberg and from USSTRATCOM just give them a leg up if they go off and become satellite operators later on in their career,” said Bellardo.
The number of satellites in orbit is only going to expand in the future. Experts estimate an additional 3,000 will launch by 2026.