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Feature Story

Boeing engineer Bruce Rose stands outside the Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS)

Chris Shurilla/Boeing

Boeing engineer Bruce Rose stands outside the Advanced Electro-Optical System (AEOS), a large telescope at the U.S. Air Force’s Maui Space Surveillance Complex in Hawaii. The complex uses highly sophisticated telescopes to track space objects and man-made debris in near-Earth and deep-space orbit. Boeing is upgrading computer software to make these capabilities even better.

Peering into space

AEOS, a 3.67-meter-diameter (12-foot), 75-ton telescope that is the largest in the U.S. Department of Defense inventory

U.S. Air Force photo

The software changes are initially being applied to AEOS, a 3.67-meter-diameter (12-foot), 75-ton telescope that is the largest in the U.S. Department of Defense inventory. The software upgrades will later be applied to Maui’s five other telescopes over the next two years.

Boeing engineer Bruce Rose works in Hawaii atop a long-dormant volcano equipped with powerful telescopes that peer thousands of miles into space. But commuting to the office often means dealing with less celestial matters.

It can take up to 90 minutes to navigate the zigzag road up the steep, 10,000-foot Haleakala volcano, which resembles a big mountain. And then there are the cows.

"There is a section of the drive that goes through a major ranch that at some times of the year is populated with open range cattle, so you have to watch out for cows -- and their byproducts -- on the road," Rose said with a smile.

Rose, who has worked at the telescope facility for almost a dozen years, considers such obstacles a small price to pay for doing his job at Maui, where the dry, clean air and stable climate that help make the island a popular tourist attraction also help make it an ideal place to peer into space.

Atop Haleakala, the U.S. Air Force and Boeing use a suite of highly sophisticated telescopes to track space objects and man-made debris in near-Earth and deep-space orbit. The observatory supports U.S. military operations as well as research and development.

At the facility, known as the Maui Space Surveillance Complex, Rose oversees a wide range of modernization programs. His highest-profile project involves making computer upgrades to improve what are already considered state-of-the-art capabilities. The upgrades are being made to the Observatory Control System, the computers that make the Maui telescopes work. 

Each telescope at the facility has a set of cameras and other sensors that collect images of space objects. Currently, when plans call for upgrading sensors, adding new ones or using existing sensors in a different way, customized computer software changes are needed. It can take many months to develop those software changes.

Under the Space Observatory Control Kit (SpOCK) project, which began about 15 months ago, Boeing is developing a common set of software for processing images from sensors. That commonality is expected to greatly reduce the amount of custom software required, making it relatively easy to incorporate new or upgraded sensors into the system. For example, a complex sensor that now takes six months or more to develop and integrate is expected to take a month or less to bring to fruition once the computer upgrades are implemented. A simple sensor that took several weeks to develop and integrate will see its implementation period reduced to a week.

"The Maui Space Surveillance Complex is a critical national asset supporting research and providing space situational awareness."

"The goal is to build a more flexible, reliable system that is cheaper to run and allows relatively easy integration of new sensors and experiments so that the Government’s dollars can be spent more on executing research and less on sensor and equipment development and integration," Rose said. "Our main research area involves what is called ‘space situational awareness’ – basically, finding ways to determine what thousands of man-made objects in space are doing, where they are, what they are and how they are orbiting. Since our budgets are relatively fixed, if the cost of deploying and maintaining a sensor is less, then there is more money to actually use the sensor to make observations and to further the research."

The software changes are initially being applied to the Advanced Electro-Optical System, a 3.67-meter-diameter (12-foot), 75-ton telescope that is the largest in the U.S. Department of Defense inventory. They will later be applied to Maui’s five other telescopes over the next two years.

The computer upgrades are part of Boeing’s nearly two-decade effort, under contract to the U.S. Air Force, to provide technical support services to the Maui site.

The Maui Space Surveillance Complex supports U.S. military operations as well as research and development.

U.S. Air Force photo

The Maui Space Surveillance Complex supports U.S. military operations as well as research and development.

"The Maui Space Surveillance Complex is a critical national asset supporting research and providing space situational awareness," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Harvey, chief of systems engineering at Maui. "These computer upgrades will help the system continue its vital missions for many years to come. "

Rose said that knowledge gained from SpOCK will be also applied to the U.S. Air Force’s Starfire Optical Range in New Mexico, another telescope facility that Boeing supports. The Starfire facility focuses on laser and adaptive optics research.

"Some of the upgrades that we develop here will be shared with Starfire and some of what Starfire has developed over the years is being incorporated into SpOCK," Rose said. "In this era of tight defense budgets, there is a renewed push to make the two sites more common in their infrastructure in order to reduce overall operating costs of the sites together."

Although the Air Force recently launched the Space Based Surveillance System (SBSS) satellite, built by a Boeing-led team to track space objects, that won’t lessen the need for the ground-based Maui facility, according to Rose. The number of objects in space is mushrooming as more countries and companies jostle in the exo-atmosphere, so Maui and SBSS will both have plenty to do.

"I expect to be dodging cows on Haleakala for quite a long time," Rose said.