Space research at Penn State highlighted with international workshop

Professor of Aerospace Engineering Puneet Singla speaks with Penn State News about recent events

April 5, 2024

By Mariah R. Lucas

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State co-hosted a two-day virtual summit for the India-U.S. Defense Acceleration Ecosystem, or INDUS-X, a knowledge consortium that was formed in June 2023 to expand the cooperation between the Indian and U.S. governments, as well as businesses and academic institutions on space-related research for defense applications.  

Co-hosted by the Indian Space Association and the Indian Institute of Science, the workshop focused on emerging space technologies and in-space assembly and manufacturing. 

Puneet Singla, professor of aerospace engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, took a lead role in organizing the workshop, which featured opening remarks by Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi and a concluding talk by Vijaykrishnan Narayanan. Narayanan is the A. Robert Noll Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the College of Engineering’s associate dean for innovation, and he gave an overview on INDUS-X’s academic collaborations as well as the concluding remarks.  

Penn State News caught up with Singla to talk about the outcomes from the event and space research at Penn State. 

Q: What is Penn State’s involvement in INDUS-X?  

Singla: In collaboration with the Applied Research Lab (ARL), Penn State annually receives more than $400 million in defense-related research funding. From INDUS-X’s inception, Penn State has taken a lead role in strengthening the strategic defense relationship between the U.S. and India.  

Narayanan serves as the lead coordinator for the INDUS-X academic collaboration advisory team. In collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Narayanan organized the first of a series of workshops in August focused on the academia and startup programming partnership under the umbrella of INDUS-X. During the workshop, technologies supporting sustainable space exploration and space flight operations were identified as one of the major focal points for INDUS-X and was the subject of the most recent workshop in February.  

In partnership with an educational nonprofit, Penn State is developing additional workshops to strengthen the technology transfer from academia to start-up companies, and the University is currently part of a testbed consortium to expand testing facility access for defense and dual-use companies. 

Q: What were the main themes discussed in the workshop and their outcomes? 

Singla: The goals of the workshop were to identify the capabilities, synergies and technology priorities for research investments through Indo-U.S. cooperation in the space sector for defense applications; develop mechanisms for fostering collaborations across academia, government labs and the commercial space industry; and identify challenges related to technology transfer, space policy and bilateral collaborations. 

The workshop saw active participation by more than 260 attendees with four keynote speakers, representing senior leadership from the U.S. Department of Defense, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, leading university researchers and the representatives from the commercial space sector of both nations.  

Together, we identified the need for a qualified workforce to support the space industry, the need for collaboration mechanisms in space research, and the need to address regulatory constraints to sustain the growth of the space industry. We also identified key hurdles for developing space technology, such as access to testbed facilities for testing launch vehicles and space objects in a micro-gravity environment.  

Q: In what ways is Penn State a leader in space research?   

Singla: Astrodynamics and space operations is a growing research area at Penn State. Faculty are involved in projects related to tracking space objects and structures in different orbits around the Earth as well the space beyond Earth’s geosynchronous orbit known as XGEO. Penn State boasts unique facilities for testing space objects in the harsh space environment, and we work closely with U.S. Space Force researchers to protect national assets in space. My colleague, Roshan Eapen, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, is currently in process of setting up a telescope observatory in New Mexico to collect data for different space objects. Student participation in the Astrodynamics Research Group of Penn State — a lab in the Department of Aerospace Engineering that brings together efforts across the University in areas such as multi-body dynamics, space object tracking and characterization, spacecraft rendezvous and proximity operations, space robotics and interplanetary mission design — has more than tripled in the last three years. Researchers from ARL also are supporting our work in tracking and characterizing space objects through ground observations.  

Q: How does this work tie into current events? 

Singla: Space has become an increasingly valuable domain for national security due to diplomatic, informational and economic reasons. The global space industry is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry with a potential to create new jobs, mitigate climate change and advance our nation’s economic, scientific, technological and national security interests. The last few years have seen exponential growth in the launch of space objects and there is an increased interest in having a permanent cislunar presence through the Artemis program. While only two nations could hope to operate in the cislunar realm during the Artemis era, several nations and many private industries are aiming for the Moon in the Artemis era.  

A week after the February INDUS-X workshop, American-owned Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land on the Moon. Most recently, with the success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission, India became the first country to autonomously land and operate a rover on the south pole of the Moon with a total mission budget of merely $75 million. In 2017, India’s PSLV C-37 held the record of launching 104 satellites in a single flight, breaking the previous record of 37 satellites by Russia. A collaboration between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies can lead to cost saving, reduced duplication of effort, and development of innovative solutions for defense and economic growth, paving the way for innovation and development in space technology. 


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