The Air Force Academy's physics department is hoping a dozen small telescopes will change how the military looks at the sky.
The school is installing the robotic-controlled 20-inch telescopes on campuses around Colorado and the globe to form a network of eyes staring at the night sky. While the telescopes are relatively cheap - less than $200,000 each - working together they can accomplish huge things, said physics professor Francis Chun, who is running the project.
The biggest thing: tracking and identifying satellites and space junk.
"We are providing cadets the ability to track objects in the space catalog," Chun said.
The "space catalog" is the more than 20,000 objects circling Earth that are tracked by Air Force Space Command. They include bolts and booster rockets from 1960s space launches, modern satellites and unidentified objects.
Chun explained that one of the telescopes may generate a hazy view of objects in orbit. But the academy's network, expected to be complete by 2015, can use several telescopes to track the same item, building a richer picture of what's in space. The data is sent electronically to the academy.
The Air Force has expressed increasing alarm over the past decade as more nations have put satellites in orbit. Once the domain of the world's most powerful nations, now even the poorest nations are using space.
That makes avoiding collisions more difficult and also drives the Air Force to track an ever-increasing number of satellites. The satellites are invisible during the day and at night shimmer with reflected sunlight.
"They look like stars," Chun said.
By looking at the satellites through a number of telescopes, Chun said cadet researchers could determine what they're made of and why they were launched.
It's not a space-spying program. The academy is studying unclassified objects in space using information available to the public, Chun said.
The Air Force received grants to buy the telescopes and the academy's Colorado partners - Otero Junior College, Northeastern Junior College, Colorado Mesa University and Fort Lewis College - must provide facilities to house their telescopes.
When cadets aren't watching the night sky, the academy telescopes will be available for astronomy students and local school programs.
Other uses for the telescopes include searching the skies for incoming asteroids and observing planets circling distant stars.
Chun said installing 12 telescopes is a start for the program. "The sky is the limit."