ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico scientists and students will help the Air Force Research Laboratory build next-generation space technology under two new AFRL contracts totaling nearly $25 million.
The awards will finance basic research on new space communications technology, upgrades to the nation’s Global Positioning System, and impacts of radiation on satellites and other spacecraft to make defense-related space operations – and, in turn, civilian and commercial systems – far more robust and resilient.
Apart from technology development, the research will offer hands-on experience for UNM students, potentially helping to build a new pipeline of talent for government-run space programs, and for New Mexico’s emerging commercial space industry, said Andrea Loper, a business manager with AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base.
“UNM engineers and students will do basic research to help push new technologies forward, making space systems better, stronger and more capable,” Loper told the Journal. “… It will also provide direct experience and mentoring for students to become the next generation of scientists and engineers, creating career paths for them.”
AFRL awarded $19.3 million to the UNM School of Engineering’s space research institute, known as COSMIAC – an acronym for the Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations and Applications Center.
Launched in 2007, COSMIAC conducts a broad array of space-related research, with a special focus on space electronics, at a 30,000-square-foot facility near the Albuquerque International Sunport at Alamo Avenue and Yale Boulevard.
About 60 faculty, staff and student researchers work at the facility, which includes 15,000 square feet on three floors of one building, and 15,000 square feet of high-bay space at a second building. The center has labs, a cleanroom, and two ground stations with 24/7 satellite communications.
COSMIAC has more than 40 active projects underway involving research for public and private entities, including the AFRL, NASA and multinational companies like Northrop Grumman and Leidos.
But the new $19.3 million cooperative agreement with AFRL is COSMIAC’s biggest single award to date.
It will involve UNM researchers and students at all levels of science, technology engineering and math, said COSMIAC Director Craig Kief.
“It will stretch through all the STEM fields, from engineering to math and physics,” Kief said. “It will offer broad opportunities for students, from freshmen to doctoral students and possibly even post-docs.”
Building next-generation talent is critical, especially in New Mexico, where AFRL and other entities at Kirtland are front and center in new space-related technology development for the Air Force, and for the new U.S. Space Force, which President Donald Trump approved last December as the sixth branch of the military. It’s also critical for the state’s emerging commercial space industry.
“We have an unbelievably severe shortage of (government) ‘cleared’ engineers in Albuquerque,” Kief said. “Students from Florida, California and elsewhere come in, stay for one year, get clearance and leave. We need to grow a lot more local talent to fill jobs here.”
For UNM, the economic development aspects of the AFRL cooperative agreement are as important as technology development, said School of Engineering Dean Christos Christodoulou. That includes both workforce development through education and technology transfer for local companies that will assist COSMIAC on research.
“Albuquerque and state government are pushing for New Mexico to become a thriving aerospace hub and possibly a permanent location for the U.S. Space Command,” Christodoulou said. “We can’t do that with a shortage of skilled talent. UNM is a key educational arm for the industry.”
Under the COSMIAC agreement, UNM will focus on two broad areas of research – new communications systems for space operations and the modernization of satellite position, navigation and timing, or PNT systems, which provide the foundational backbone for GPS.
Specifically, COSMIAC will study use of much higher frequency communication bands for satellites and space operations, as well as optical communications, to improve data flow.
“Most low-Earth-orbit satellites fly five miles per second,” Kief said. “Trying to hit a small 12-by-4-by-8-inch box at those speeds is already hard with low frequencies, and the higher the frequency the harder it is. So we need to do more high-frequency research.”
That includes analysis with a series of communication links at 72 gigahertz and 82 GHZ between COSMIAC and Sandia Crest.
“Those areas in spectrum are not used a lot,” said Loper, who is program manager for the AFRL-COSMIAC agreement. “We’ll explore expanding the bandwidth for communications in an area that’s not over-trafficked to move some communications to those areas.”
UNM will also assist in designing and testing software-defined radio to rapidly change frequencies in satellite communications when jamming or interference occurs. It will study capabilities for new, automated NPT controls, and reconfigurable communications to change protocols on orbiting satellites.
“COSMIAC will help with a lot of modeling and simulation, looking at algorithms and communication links to make networks more resilient with intelligent automation and inherent capabilities,” Loper said.
Apart from the COSMIAC agreement, AFRL also approved a new, $4.9 million, five-year contract this month for the School of Engineering to study the impacts of radiation on spacecraft. That research will assist in U.S. efforts to return to the moon by 2024.
“The deeper you go in space, the more problematic radiation becomes,” Christodoulou said. “We’ll gather data on radiation effects to do modeling and simulation for projections of radiation impacts on the moon.”