A new partnership is giving Cal Poly aerospace students greater responsibilities than just homework: They’ll also be charged with keeping an eye on the thousands of objects orbiting the Earth.

The San Luis Obispo campus of the university announced last week that it has signed an agreement with U.S. Strategic Command to join “more than 100 commercial and foreign nations working together to expand space situational awareness — the ability to monitor, understand and predict natural man-made objects in orbit around the Earth.”

U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) is responsible for space operations as well as “strategic deterrence, nuclear operations, joint electronic spectrum operations, global strike, missile defense and analysis and targeting,” according to the release.

Government officials say they are concerned about the growing number of satellites and amount of debris — like rocket bodies and dead payloads — in Earth orbit. Increased monitoring is necessary to ensure smooth space operations into the future, they said.

That’s where Cal Poly comes in. Students operating the university’s CubeSat Lab, which monitors and downloads data from satellites passing overhead, will now share that data with the Air Force Space Command’s 18th Space Control Squadron, based at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“Cal Poly is honored to be the first academic institution to enter into an official partnership with U.S. Strategic Command,” President Jeffrey Armstrong said. “This first-of-its-kind partnership will allow current and future Cal Poly students to gain hands-on experience working with our four CubeSats currently in orbit and how they affect, and are affected by, other satellites in orbit. These invaluable experiences will prepare our graduates for successful careers in the space and technology industries.”

Cal Poly has been closely aligned with U.S. space activities since at least the 1990s, when emeritus Cal Poly aerospace engineering professor Jordi Puig-Suari teamed with Stanford professor Bob Twiggs to develop the CubeSat standard.

The small satellites are often built and operated with the help of Cal Poly students; most recently, students helped The Planetary Society unfurl a solar sail on a citizen-funded Cubesat over San Luis Obispo.

Cal Poly has also already built a close relationship with the 18th Space Control Squadron, which tracks more than 23,000 “softball-size objects,” as well as more than 1,300 satellites, the International Space Station and space junk traveling at speeds of up to 18,000 mph, according to the release.

Cal Poly is the first university to sign an agreement with U.S. Strategic Command for data-sharing.

“Universities play a vital role in the exploration and understanding of space,” Rear Adm. Richard Correll said in the news release. “The future of space is reliant on research and the advancement of technology to enhance overall space-flight safety and the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of the space environment.”

©2019 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.