Moriba Jah portrait

Researchers are working to reduce the threats posed by more than 20,000 objects in space and ASE/EM associate professor Moriba Jah's ASTRIAGraph database seeks to minimize collisions. The Sept. 5 issue of the journal Nature featured work that Jah describes as making "space a place that is safe to operate, that is free and useful for future generations.”

Jah's efforts to understand where all the debris is with a high degree of precision seeks to address the need for many unnecessary maneuvers used to avoid potential collisions. His field is "called space-traffic management, because it’s analogous to managing traffic on the roads or in the air," writes Alex Witze in Nature. "Think about a busy day at an airport, says Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin: planes line up in the sky like a string of pearls, landing and taking off close to one another in a carefully choreographed routine. Air-traffic controllers know the location of the planes down to 1 meter in accuracy."

In the feature article, Jah illustrates this with his web-based database ASTRIAGraph. It draws on several sources, such as catalogues maintained by the U.S. and Russian governments, to visualize the locations of objects in space. When he types in an identifier for a particular space object, ASTRIAGraph draws a purple line to designate its orbit.

ASTRIAGraph currently contains some, but not all, of the major sources of information about tracking space objects, notes the article. The U.S. military catalogue — the largest such database publicly available — almost certainly omits information on classified satellites. The Russian government similarly holds many of its data close. Several commercial space-tracking databases have sprung up in the past few years, and most of those do not share openly.

Jah describes himself as a space environmentalist: “I want to make space a place that is safe to operate, that is free and useful for future generations.” Until that happens, he argues, the space community will continue devolving into a tragedy of the commons, in which all spaceflight operators are polluting a common resource.

He and other space environmentalists are starting to make headway, at least when it comes to U..S space policy, says Witze. Jah testified on space-traffic management in front of Congress last year, at the invitation of Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas who co-introduced a space-regulations bill this July. In June, President Donald Trump also signed a directive on space policy that, among other things, would shift responsibility for the U.S. public space-debris catalogue from the military to a civilian agency — probably the U.S. Department of Commerce, which regulates business.

Jah now performs his work under the newly formed ICES Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies Group.

Read the full article at The quest to conquer Earth’s space junk problem.