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Department of Physics

Center for Space Situational Awareness Research (CSSAR)


The vision of the CSSAR (pronounced Caesar) is to provide cadets at the United States Air Force Academy an education and research program in space situational awareness (SSA) using world-class facilities and capabilities. The goal is to create the entire process that the Air Force and Department of Defense uses to exploit space for joint operations; from the use of sensors (ground and space), to the collection and flow of data into C2 centers, to the conversion of data into actionable information for decision makers, to the development of policy and doctrine.

Areas of Interest

CSSAR is actively working in the following areas:
  • Non-imaging photometric and spectral techniques leading to the identification and characterization of un-resolved space objects.
  • Modeling and simulation to understand the inverse problem associated with characterization of non-resolved space objects.
  • Initial orbit determination using metric data from bi-static radar returns and angles-only optical measurements.
  • Short arc precision orbit determination with high-rate optical measurement.
  • Investigation of resolved imaging techniques such as lucky imaging

Educational Initiatives

CSSAR has several educational initiatives to include:
  • Teaching a new survey course in space situational awareness
  • Acquisition of a 2-m, Fast-Tracking Telescope (FTT) for:
    • Satellite tracking
    • High-resolution imaging
    • Laser experiments and sensor technology
  • Implementation of a network of telescopes called the Falcon Telescope Network for:
    • Non-resolved space object characterization
    • Precision satellite metrics & debris studies
    • Sensor networking
  • Atmospheric characterization and lucky imaging
  • Modeling and simulation of satellites
  • Implementation of a network of VHF receivers called the Falcon Radar Network for bi-static radar returns from the USAF Space Fence
  • Implementation of a Cadet "JSpOC" (CSOC)—an educational command and control center


Our core area of expertise is in the use of small aperture optical telescopes for satellite characterization using techniques adapted from the astronomical community, specifically photometry, spectroscopy, and polarimetry.

FalconSAT-5, 5 January 2011
Figure 1. First image of the Air Force Academy's FalconSAT-5 taken on 5 January 2011.

Figure 1 shows an image of FalconSAT-5 using a 16-inch telescope in the rate-track mode. The satellite is the bright dot in the center of the image while the stars are the streaks. From these types of images, we can apply all-sky photometry techniques to build a satellite's light curve. Figure 2 is a light curve for the CubeSat Libertad-1.

Light curve for a Cubesat
Figure 2. Light curve for a CubeSat (Libertad-1).

International Space Station, taken at the Academy
Figure 3. International Space Station, taken from the Academy.

In addition to photometry, CSSAR is conducting research in satellite spectra using slitless spectroscopy (diffraction grating) as well as lucky imaging. Figure 3 is a picture of the International Space Station illustrating the lucky imaging technique.


CSSAR has two full-time civilian positions: Director and Senior Scientist. Each is a faculty member with primary salary paid from external research funds. CSSAR is one of the few soft money centers at USAFA.

In addition to the two civilian research positions noted above, several teaching faculty, research grant recipients and cadets are involved in CSSAR research projects. Research grant recipients can find more information about the USAFA Broad Agency Announcement for research at the website (


Current facilities include the USAFA observatory (Figure 4) which houses a 24-inch and 16-inch telescope (Figure 5). Additionally, CSSAR has a mobile observatory that houses a 20-inch Ritchey-Cretien telescope (Figure 6). Commercial CCD cameras and 9-position filter wheels are integrated onto the satellite-tracking telescopes. Co-located with the USAFA observatory is a radar receiver site for bi-static returns from the Space Fence. Facilities actively in development are the Falcon Telescope Network (FTN), the Falcon Radar Network (FRN) and the Cadet Space Operations Center (CSOC). The FTN will consist of sites within the United States and overseas. Current funding is for 12 fixed telescope observatories and 2 mobile observatories. The FRN is planned to be 5 fixed sites located in the United States. The CSOC will be the command and control center for the FTN and FRN and will be used as a SSA test bed by cadets and faculty.

USAFA Observatory
Figure 4. USAFA Observatory.

USAFA 16 inch telescope
Figure 5. USAFA 16-inch telescope.

USAFA 20 inch mobile telescope
Figure 6. USAFA 20-inch mobile telescope.

U.S. Air Force Academy, USAFA, CO 80840, (719) 333-1110 DSN: 333-1110, 06 Dec 16
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