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Academics Alum Features

Saint John’s proved the perfect launching pad for a future in space research

Michael Klonowski ’21 is less than two years gone from Saint John’s University and his education is already out of this world.

A math and physics double-major, he’s pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering with a focus on satellite navigation and astrodynamics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He works in a space domain awareness lab with multiple giant telescopes – including one that can see a million miles into space. It’s somewhat akin to being an air traffic controller for objects in orbit between the earth and the moon.

“I always wanted to be involved with space stuff,” Klonowski said. “It’s really cool.”

He drew inspiration from SJU alumni like Paul Nakasone ’86, Mark Vande Hei ’89 and Aric Katterhagen ’96. Nakasone is a four-star general who is director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Vande Hei became an astronaut and holds the American record for longest continuous space flight. And Katterhagen is a lead operations engineer with NASA, coordinating the use of free-flying robots on the International Space Station.

Klonowski first seriously considered following in their footsteps after he met Vande Hei at Saint John’s in 2019.

“That opened my mind to say, ‘I don’t have to just settle for a job after graduation,’” Klonowski said. “I can do something that’s important, not only to me but to the broader space community.”

He’s quickly making a name for himself. Earlier this academic year, in preparation for attending a renowned space domain awareness conference for the first time, he produced an article based on his research. Titled Optimal Cislunar Architecture Design Using Monte Carlo Tree Search (MCTS) Methods, it won best student paper at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference at the end of September in Hawaii.

Sifting through the ‘junk’ in space

Cislunar refers to the volume of space around the earth and the moon. And MCTS is an algorithm Klonowski uses to find the best positions for observer satellites to maximize coverage of an object going from the earth to the moon.

There’s a lot of stuff up there, including a lot of junk, and there’s difficulty with the interactions of the major players in space,” he said. “Russia and China are involved, and we don’t know what they’re doing, and the overcrowded-ness is something that a lot of people worry about – especially as we see more of these constellation satellites go up.”

One example is Starlink, a system of thousands of satellites about 340 miles above the earth in a grid pattern to provide Internet communication. The system is engineered by SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk in 2002. Companies like Amazon with its Project Kuiper and OneWeb, a London-based communications company, also have low-earth orbit satellites with similar goals in mind.

“Those are going around, and they’re all moving really fast,” Klonowski said. “There’s very little regulation within the United States and the international community that tells people how satellites should operate. If there are satellites from two different entities, and they have a high probability of colliding, whose responsibility is it to maneuver? If they crash into each other, whose fault is it? Because space is so far away, it’s hard to know what happens up there. If one entity maneuvers, it can make it worse. If that happens, what incentives do they have to tell the truth about what happened? And, if they do tell the truth, how can we verify from the ground or other satellites that they actually did something or know they’re lying?”

The number of objects humans have shot into space in the past 50 years has become enormous. Identifying them and tracking their movement is part of a five-year $51/2-million cooperative agreement between CU Boulder and the Air Force Research Laboratory. The lead expert on the project is Marcus Holzinger, an associate professor in the school’s Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, who happens to be Klonowski’s advisor. The funding builds on a $2 million grant from The Anschutz Foundation to track and protect satellites in orbit and a research partnership with U.S. Space Command, both of which began in the fall of 2021.

Boulder to Boeing and beyond

That was when Klonowski arrived at Boulder. Within a few months, Holzinger suggested he take on a project of using machine algorithms and applying them to cislunar architecture development. Klonowski accepted. His first significant research project was funded by Ball Aerospace and became the basis for his award-winning paper.

“There are all kinds of fancy orbits that appear when you have more than two gravitational bodies,” Klonowski said. “You have the main, primary masses, which are the earth and the moon. They combine for some funky stuff, a lot of chaotic dynamics, with anything that comes under their influence. Studying three-body problems, which is what they’re called, is a huge area of research and new methods are being applied every week.”

He met a host of contacts at the AMOS conference who opened his eyes to the broader industry and the potential impact of his work. AMOS, in its 23rd year as perhaps the premier technological conference in the nation dedicated to Space Situational/Domain Awareness, included sold-out crowd of more than 1,200 participants and another 250-plus observing virtually. That’s how he got an internship for this coming summer at Boeing in Seattle. He was chatting with someone who knew Holzinger and they saw Klonowski was going to make a presentation.

“They came to listen and offered me a job,” Klonowski said.

It’s a long way from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, where he grew up about three hours east of Collegeville.

Unique opportunities at CSB and SJU

Klonowski’s older sister attended the College of Saint Benedict, so he was familiar with SJU. But he thought he had to attend a bigger school to be successful, and that nearly caused him to make a big mistake.

“My cousins went to Notre Dame and Carleton, and it felt like ‘blah-blah-blah,’ that I needed to go to a place like that to be successful,” Klonowski said. “I didn’t know any better. But Saint John’s was the first school to accept me, and the financial package was way better than even the University of Wisconsin or the University of Minnesota.

“It turned out pretty well.”

Obviously, Klonowski took some statistics classes at SJU and CSB en route to his double major. But he also participated in Extending the Link as a sophomore, helping to film a documentary in Germany about Syrian refugees and immigration – something he said was “a transformational experience.” And he studied abroad in Guatemala. He credits his liberal arts education, including philosophy classes, as precisely the reason he is succeeding as a Ph.D. student and navigating thermodynamics and statistical and quantum mechanics.

“In talking with my colleagues now, the opportunities I had were comparatively unique to Saint John’s,” Klonowski said. “I wouldn’t have become who I am if I chased that ‘name’ school or went someplace bigger. I feel really lucky, but I also feel very prepared.”

And where Nakasone, Vande Hei and Katterhagen inspired Klonowski, he would love nothing better than to pay it forward to some future Bennies and Johnnies studying math, physics or simply interested in space.

“There’s so much interest from industry and government to get well-rounded people who are not only able to analyze mathematical systems and do data analysis but also can partake in these conversations about space and be intelligent, contextual, understanding people,” he said. “I think there are a lot of really smart people at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s and, if I can do this, they can, too.”

Michael Klonowski at AMOS

Michael Klonowski ’21 holds an award he earned for best student paper at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference at the end of September in Hawaii. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder and has an internship planned for this coming summer with Boeing in Seattle.

Michael Klonowski

Michael Klonowski ’21