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New building offers a home for space tracking partnership with U.S. Air Force

DURANGO, CO – What sets the plot of the 2013 hit film “Gravity” in motion is space debris hurtling around in orbit, tearing apart a space shuttle and stranding George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. It’s a catastrophe that’s not as far fetched as one might think, at least the part about renegade space junk turning a shuttle or satellite into, well, more space junk.

To help prevent a disaster like the one in “Gravity,” the U.S. Air Force teamed up with Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and other institutions across the globe to survey and track space debris orbiting Earth. The project is called the Falcon Telescope Network, and with the area around our planet turning into something resembling a busy highway in the middle of a junkyard, it's an initiative that's becoming increasingly important.

The partnership was sealed a while back, but Dr. Ryan Haaland, chair of the FLC Department of Physics and Engineering, was holding off on fully implementing the program at Fort Lewis, delaying delivery of the state-of-the-art telescope and tracking equipment the Air Force offered.

“We’d love to put all that great, new high tech hardware on a brand new building,” he said. “It would be the perfect marriage of the project with a home.”

With the recent groundbreaking of the College’s new geosciences, physics and engineering building, Dr. Haaland is getting his wish. Once the $35 million facility is completed in fall 2016, the Falcon Telescope Network at Fort Lewis College will be headquartered in the observatory on the new building’s roof.

Once the Air Force equipment is installed in the new observatory, FLC students will be able to participate in real world science that has immense implications for them, as well as for the nation and the world. Imagine being a recent graduate in a job interview and explaining how you helped keep space stations, shuttles, as well as communication, GPS, and other satellites out of harm’s way.

The public, from school children to amateur astronomers, will also be able to take advantage of the partnership. Dr. Haaland hopes to make the observatory a showcase for the entire community.

“[The Falcon Telescope Network] always had as one of its major goals to excite and invite young students and locally interested people into the science world and see what kind of observations we can make.”

Learn more about Fort Lewis College’s new geosciences, physics and engineering building

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