AFOSR selects special topics for bold space science proposals

ARLINGTON, Virginia — With the world’s eyes focusing on the challenges of space more than ever before, the space domain is of utmost importance for the United States to maintain economic, technological, political, and military leadership. In support of the United States Space Force’s (USSF) long-term goals and science research in space, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFRL/AFOSR) held the Director’s Space Challenge, a competition for one-year grants to fund bold, high-risk, high-reward basic science proposals with significant potential to positively impact future military operations in space.

Held virtually on December 7-8, the Space Challenge was supported by the Basic Research Innovation Collaboration Center (BRICC) based in Arlington, Virginia. The challenge was split into two separate competitions – one for AFOSR’s US-based Project Officers, awarding four grants of $200,000 each, and one for AFOSR’s International Project Officers, awarding four grants of $75,000 each.

Basic science is the bedrock on which Air and Space Force innovation is built, uncovering fundamental knowledge about scientific subjects not wholly understood. This understanding then leads to ground-breaking ideas, theories, and principles that drive progress.

“At AFOSR we take our mission to discover, shape and champion breakthrough science to mature and advance technologies for future Air Force and Space Force capabilities seriously,” said AFOSR Director Dr. Shery Welsh. “I’m excited to demonstrate our value to the USSF through the joint selection of these bold, high-risk, space-related research topics.”

The twenty proposals, presented over two days, covered subjects such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, new ways to fuel spacecraft, testing hypersonics in Earth orbit, space weather, and much more. Each proposal was scored in four equally weighted categories: technical merit, high-risk/high reward, relevance to the space domain, and potential for impact on operations in space.

The judging panel consisted of Dr. Welsh along with AFRL Chief Technology Officer Dr. Tim Bunning, AFOSR Chief Scientist Dr. Pat Roach, USSF Chief Scientist Dr. Joel Mozer, and USSF Deputy Chief Scientist Dr. Michele Gaudreault.

On the first day of the challenge, the four awardees were:

  • Dr. Michael R. Berman (Theoretical Chemistry) for his proposal “Electrochemical Fuel Ionic Liquids: A new paradigm for fuel and material needs in space”
  • Dr. Frederick Leve (Dynamics and Control) for his proposal “Basic Research Issues for Cislunar and Deep Space Doman Awareness”
  • Dr. Brett Pokines and Dr. Sarah Popkin (Agile Science of Test and Evaluation) for their proposal “Space Test Science”
  • Dr. Laura Steckman (Trust and Influence) for her proposal “Trusted Distributed Human-Machine Teaming for Safe and Effective Space-based Missions”

On the second day of the challenge, the four awardees were:

  • Lt. Col. Ryan Carr, PhD. (Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development) for his proposal “Flow-Visualization Measurements in Inside-injector Rotating Detonation Engines”
  • Dr. Nate Lockwood (European Office of Aerospace Research and Development) for his proposal “Phased Array Quantum Cascade Laser Utilizing Chaotic Waveform for Physics Secured Communication”
  • Lt. Col. Dan Montes, PhD. (Southern Office of Aerospace Research and Development) for his proposal “Ionospheric Plasma Irregularity Prediction and Sporadic E Layer Identification”
  • Maj. Christopher Vergien, PhD. (Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development) for his proposal “High Power Visible and UV Diamond Raman Lasers for Advanced Mesospheric Beacons”

The AFOSR Director’s Space Challenge was another event in the series of commitments AFOSR has made to support the basic research needs of the USSF. On October 13–14 the two organizations hosted the inaugural Space Sciences Summit – a virtual event for nearly 400 participants from across the space operations and research communities to define and discuss long-term, space-related research challenges. It included special presentations from Space Force operators and AFRL scientists, as well as keynote remarks from AFRL Commander, Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, Space Force Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Maj. Gen. Kimberly Crider, and Air Force Materiel Command Commander, Gen. Arnold Bunch.

The BRICC provided vital support as the hosts of the AFOSR Director’s Space Challenge and the many trailblazing proposals presented. Powered by the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation, the BRICC is a collaborative space offering data analytics, technology transfer services, workforce development, and outreach activities in support of AFOSR’s mission to advance basic science which will expand and enhance Air and Space Force capabilities.

illustration of experiment

The Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS) is a spaceflight experiment designed to demonstrate foundational space domain awareness capabilities in the cislunar regime. AFOSR Program Officer for Dynamical Systems and Control Theory and one of the winning proposers, Dr. Fred Leve, anticipates the mathematical theory for reachability analysis in his project titled, “Basic Research Issues for Cislunar and Deep Space Doman Awareness” will help for prediction on AFRL CHPS experiment due to the incomplete and uncertain dynamics and environment of cislunar orbits. (AFRL courtesy graphic)