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Air Force Academy Foundation receives 2020 Educational Fundraising Award

The Air Force Academy Foundation in Colorado Springs is among more than 100 U.S. institutions from across the nation to win a 2020 Educational Fundraising Award for its continued fundraising performance. The awards are administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a global nonprofit membership association of educational institutions.

A first-time award winner, the Foundation is one of two organizations honored for overall performance in the Public Liberal Arts Institutions category. The Educational Fundraising Awards annually recognize exemplary development programs based on a blind review of data submitted to the CASE Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey. CASE automatically considers member institutions that participated in the VSE for the past three years. 

"Whilst today we celebrate the schools, colleges and universities in the United States that embody the best in educational fundraising, we want to acknowledge the people who make such achievements possible," said Sue Cunningham, CASE President and CEO. "This inspiring philanthropic engagement is guided by dedicated and professional development staff, and supported by generous volunteers. Collectively, we are advancing education—key to addressing the many serious challenges our world faces today."

The overall performance recognition celebrates solid program growth, breadth in the base of support, and other indications of a mature, well-maintained program.

The Air Force Academy Foundation has raised more than $200 million in support of U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and programs since 2007. In 2018 and 2019, donors provided record-setting support of more than $28 million and $30 million, respectively.

"Through their donations to the Air Force Academy Foundation in support of Academy priorities and programs run by all the other supporting foundations, donors touch all aspects of the Academy: cadet clubs, athletics, academics, heritage and character and leadership. Each gift creates or improves an experience that will serve graduates throughout their professional careers," wrote Mike Gould, CEO of the Association of Graduates and Air Force Academy Foundation, in the Foundation's 2019 Annual Report .

NASA Calling

This story originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Checkpoints magazine.

By Gary Martyn

NASA invited the Air Force Academy's observatory team to join its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission in search of distant exoplanets — planets orbiting distant stars outside our solar system — aided by the observatory's new one-meter telescope.

TESS is in an elliptical orbit around Earth that reaches an altitude of 233,000 miles. Equipped with four wide field-of-view cameras, its two-year mission is to survey 200,000 of the brightest stars near the sun in search of exoplanets.

The USAFA team's mission is to help confirm possible exoplanet sightings.

"TESS finds potential exoplanet candidates, and we take more detailed pictures with a specific focus on a single star," says 2nd Lt. Gabrielle McClelland '20, who worked on the project in her senior year at the Academy. "We actually had good enough data on one of our observations that NASA moved one of the candidates from questionable to probable."

The suspected exoplanet, which NASA believes to be about 20% larger than Earth, is 90 light-years away.

McClelland, who commissioned into the new U.S. Space Force, says her observatory research will be beneficial to her career.

"Space domain awareness is becoming extremely important, and being able to image and characterize various satellites undoubtedly will be a focus in the coming years," she says. "Understanding the limitations and capabilities of a telescope in order to take those images will be invaluable in the coming age of the Space Force."

McClelland's research partner, 2nd Lt. Kayla Brown '20, who is training to serve as an Air Force physicist, also feels fortunate she had the opportunity to conduct research with the one-meter telescope.

"It is quite awesome to see it in action and get information from stars that are very far away and dim," Brown says. "I believe it is to the point where new and exciting research will happen at the observatory."

The observatory took a quantum leap into the 21st century with the 2019 installation of a one-meter Ritchey-Chrétien reflecting telescope. This telescope replaced the 61-cm telescope built for the Air Force in 1964 to help NASA survey potential Apollo moon landing sites.

"The new scope gathers light at least seven times faster; is capable of tracking low-orbiting spacecraft, such as the International Space Station; features a unique large-format, cryo-cooled camera; and can be remotely operated from any location around the globe," says Dr. Devin Della-Rose, the director of the Academy's Astronomical Research Group and Observatory (ARGO).

As evidenced by inclusion in the TESS mission, the new telescope greatly expands the research capabilities of the observatory.

"Our cadets are already performing advanced research with the new scope, and there are many exciting plans for the future," says Della-Rose.

Tracking Earth-orbiting satellites in support of space domain awareness research, determining the faintest object for which the new telescope can capture an image, and studying the properties of distant objects using a high-resolution spectrograph are all in line as research projects.

"The high-resolution spectrograph instrument, which splits the white light from space objects into its component colors, enables researchers to unlock important properties of the object under study," says Della-Rose.

Integrating the spectrograph into the system will bring the last element of the new telescope together.

"With the purchase of this spectrograph — a gift-in-kind through the Air Force Academy Foundation — the one-meter telescope system will be complete, opening doors for new and unique research opportunities for cadets, faculty and civilian partners, both domestic and international!" Della-Rose says.

Della-Rose is also enthusiastic about coordinating community events at the observatory in conjunction with the Academy's newly reopened Planetarium and STEM Center.

The completely modernized and remodeled planetarium provides state-of-the-art projection technology and immersive surround sound presentations that enhance K-20 STEM outreach and cadet education. With planetarium shows including "Apollo 11: First Steps Edition," "Black Holes" and "Journey to the Center of the Milky Way," there is a natural connection between the planetarium and the observatory.

Della-Rose and the planetarium director, Judy Cara, envision projecting a live video stream from the observatory's telescope onto the planetarium dome to provide one-of-a-kind STEM outreach experiences.

"Because the telescope is remotely operable, we can actually move the telescope from within the planetarium, take live images with our camera and project those pictures for the planetarium audience," Della-Rose says. "Further, planetarium-goers could don virtual reality glasses to pan around as if they were actually in the observatory. Finally, for enthusiasts who can't attend the planetarium experience in person, we can create a live webcast of the event, expanding our outreach across Colorado and the country!"

The $1.23 million campaign to purchase, equip and install the new telescope was funded by a Defense University Research Instrumentation Program grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Academy Foundation and USAFA's Dean of the Faculty Research Office, with nearly half the funds provided by private donations through the Air Force Academy Foundation. Donors included a group of anonymous donors in memory of Capt. Alan B. Cheeseman '66; The Bruni Foundation; John H. Martinson '70; and Paul '70 and Elizabeth Rossetti.