The U.S. Air Force Academy received an $800,000 grant to study space junk and the threat it poses to satellite systems.

The Center for Space Situational Awareness Research will develop the Falcon Telescope Network,  a system of small telescopes for satellite tracking.

The network will form the basis for the cadets’ education and research program, and will partner them  with colleges in both Colorado and Chile. The Colorado universities include Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Otero Junior College in La Junta and Northeast Junior College in Sterling. The colleges were chosen to provide geographical diversity to the telescope network.

The Air Force already tracks more than 22,000 objects in space, but the new network will allow thousands of smaller objects to be traced.

Space junk – defunct satellites and other pieces of electronics – is littering the near-Earth orbit space. The fear is that the debris could harm operational satellites, disrupting communications on Earth.

“Over time, space will only get more congested as more countries launch satellites and more collisions between space objects occur,” said Dr. Francis Chun, one of the principle researchers for the center and for the research project. “All of this will have a negative impact on our lives, from banking to weather forecasting to navigating to communicating.”

The grant will provide colleges with a permanent telescope observatory that they can use not only to characterize and track satellites, but also can use for course work, laboratories and open houses.

The grant includes funding for a fifth telescope observatory at the University of La Serena in Chile. The telescope there will give cadets a southern hemisphere view that does not exist in the active-duty Air Force.