UT’s Aerospace Engineering and Theater Departments Join Forces to Raise Awareness for Orbital Debris

Space is getting crowded. Over the next decade, companies like SpaceX and Amazon’s Kuiper Systems plan to launch thousands of internet satellites, which would more than quintuple the number of operational satellites in orbit. Their goal is to bring internet access to the remaining third of the global population that isn’t online, including the tens of millions of Americans who don’t have reliable access to broadband internet. 

But with the increase in space traffic comes an increased risk of a collision, which can create thousands of pieces of debris, each moving 10 times faster than a bullet. If those shards strike another satellite, they can cause catastrophic damage and create even more debris. In a worst-case scenario, the cascading effects of a single collision could cut off our access to the final frontier by shrouding Earth in a layer of junk. 

Scenarios like these keep associate professor of aerospace engineering Moriba Jah awake at night. Although companies are developing spacecraft that can clean up space junk, these technologies are still in their infancy. Jah doesn’t think the problem of space junk will ever completely go away, but he does think we have a narrow window as a space faring species to get the problem under control, which he compares to the challenge of taking proactive steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. “Space is never going to be pristine again,” Jah says. “There’s a level of filth that we’re going to have to live with. But I do think we can flatten the curve.” 

Throughout his wide-ranging career, Jah has done everything from serving as a security policeman in the U.S. Air Force to helping NASA plan missions to Mars. Now he is the world’s foremost expert on so-called space junk. After joining UT in 2018, he created Astriagraph, a real-time digital model that tracks tens of thousands of objects in orbit. Jah’s software pulls in data from ground stations around the world that use massive radars to keep tabs on what exactly is circling the planet. 

Although most space companies have a good idea of the locations of their satellites or rockets at any given time, 60 years of space exploration has generated a lot of trash. Today, low Earth orbit is filled with millions of pieces of debris—everything from dead satellites and old rocket bodies to paint flecks that have chipped off spacecraft. A piece of metal smaller than a quarter might not seem like a big deal, but when it’s hurtling around the planet at 18,000 miles an hour, it can do a lot of damage. Earlier this year, a millimeter-sized object hit the robotic arm on the International Space Station (ISS) and gouged a quarter-inch hole in the instrument. It didn’t destroy it, but it did underscore the ever-present danger of space debris. 

Most of the space junk in orbit, like the piece that hit the ISS, is too small to be tracked from the ground. Instead, the world’s space agencies and militaries track the roughly 29,000 pieces of junk that are larger than a softball. If these objects collide with a satellite or the ISS, the results would be catastrophic. But until Jah created Astriagraph, there was no easy way to get a comprehensive picture of space junk location. 

“The goal is to make a Waze for space,” says Jah, referring to an app that helps drivers optimize routes. “Right now Astriagraph is mostly a website, but I want to make it useful so that machines can talk to each other and automate decisions so there aren’t so many humans in the loop.” 

Jah has partnered with IBM on a project called Advanced Research Collaboration and Application Development Environment (ARCADE) to build an app that will allow satellites and spacecraft to tap into Astriagraph for real-time data on the orbital environment. But he says he still has a hard time getting even space industry insiders to take the problem as seriously as they should. For most people, the issue of space junk seems incredibly removed—figuratively and literally—from their day-to-day lives. But Jah is adamant that this is a problem that concerns us all. We depend on satellites for everything from the internet and cell phones to routing credit card transactions and monitoring climate change. If space junk gets out of hand, it’ll make life much worse here on Earth. 

To make the issue more accessible, Jah partnered with Sven Ortel, an associate professor of practice at UT Live Design and the Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies, to create an interactive exhibit. “Space junk is what social researchers call a ‘wicked problem,’ because it’s so hard to wrap your head around,” Ortel says. “It’s not something most people feel is jeopardizing their everyday life, so we asked ourselves: How do you get people to care about something like that?” 

The answer is what Jah and Ortel call Eyes on the Sky. With a team of UT undergrads, the duo has drafted plans for an immersive project that would allow visitors to interact with virtual space junk in a series of game-like challenges. By allowing users to save the International Space Station from a collision or showing how a disabled satellite could kill their cell service, they hope people will connect to this abstract concept.  

Jah and Ortel wanted to start the Eyes on the Sky prototype last year but put the project on hold when the pandemic struck. They plan to restart this autumn and are currently scouting a location on campus for the exhibit. Jah and Ortel believe it will be a big step toward bringing the problem of space junk down to Earth. 

“Humans have abandoned this idea of custodianship and stewardship of the environment,” Jah says. “But the sky is common to all of us and our behaviors on Earth are creating consequences in the sky. Eyes on the Sky is really about using the sky as a mirror to tell us more about ourselves.” 

Credits (from top): Kacper Kieć, Sven Ortel


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