Students Build Satellite-Tracking Telescopes

University of Arizona

May, 2017
Students Build Satellite-Tracking Telescopes

When assistant professor Vishnu Reddy joined the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona with expertise in space situational awareness (SSA), few of the 20 large telescopes that UA operates around the world were suited for tracking satellites and space junk – a large part of SSA, and one that requires large amount of observing time on smaller telescopes. Having a suitable telescope on campus would provide an ideal opportunity for student access, so Reddy identified a vacant and suitable space in a former observatory, relegated to storage space in 1995.

Rather than buying off-the-shelf telescopes for upwards of $50,000 each, Reddy sought help from five undergraduate engineers to build them as part of their Engineering Design Program – a year-long capstone cross-disciplinary engineering project.

Evelyn Hunten, an electrical and computer engineering student on the team has a passion for space science and exploration, and had no doubts about what project to choose: “This project was the one I wanted to work on,” she said. “It was my first choice. I love the instrumentation behind scientific discoveries.”

In seven months, the team was able to build two 24-inch telescopes for a total cost of $30,000, utilizing creative engineering and recycling old telescopic mirrors that were being sent as junk to the university’s surplus store.

While the team was hard at work fabricating the telescopes, Reddy was working with the Air Force Research Laboratory to obtain funding for a spectroscopic survey of satellites in the geostationary orbit. In the orbit, satellites revolve around Earth at the same rate as the planet’s axis rotation, effectively hovering above Earth. With more than 500 geostationary satellites in orbit, they are frequently tracked as nondescript dots in space unless their specific designated orbit location is known by the viewer.

Reddy, on the other hand, plans to use these newly-built telescopes to identify unique color signatures of satellites, and thereby figure out exactly which one is which.

“The UA is going to be a leader in space situational awareness, and we really want to capitalize on our exceptional undergraduate students,” Reddy said. “This is also workforce development. We need an American workforce that can rise to the challenges of our national security needs, and the needs of our nation.”

For more information about this project, click here.

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