In search of space debris

Moriba Jah, director of computer-based astronautical science and technology at the Oden Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, describes herself as a “space environmentalist” (a term that could be translated as a “space ecologist”). He began his career as a U.S. Air Force security expert before spending seven years at NASA as a space navigation engineer, then eight years in the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, most notably as director of Astria, Institute for Advanced Research in Aeronautical Science and Technology.

Photo by Moriba Jah, engineer and scientist, University of TexasPhoto of Moriba Jah,

engineer and scientist,

University of Texas

Moriba Jah has since set herself a mission: to make the space around our earth cleaner, more sustainable and safer. To do this, it relies on a graph-oriented database, AstriaGraph, which tracks more than 26,000 objects in orbits close to our planet.

About 3,500 of them, like the ISS (International Space Station) and active satellites, have a purpose. The rest consists of waste and discarded items.

With even more attention, the base tracks 200 pieces of debris that can hit and severely damage satellites that provide services such as geolocation (GPS) or weather.

“I would like humanity to see the space environment as a limited resource; an environment to be protected, like the land, the air and the oceans. Finally … it should be treated differently, as the soil, the air and the oceans are treated very badly, ”he says. “We should see our immediate space, around the earth, as an ecosystem in itself. I want everyone to care about its conservation, as if their lives depended on it.”

“I would like humanity to see the space environment as a limited resource; an environment to be protected, like the land, the air and the oceans. »

Moriba JahEngineer and Scientist, University of Texas, Austin

The idea for AstroGraph came to the scientist while watching a television program that demonstrated that it was possible to identify unfaithful spouses by cross-checking several types of data – such as their phone contacts or their Uber journeys.

“That was when I realized the power of information presented in the form of graphs. No need to track the person’s actions with a satellite, it’s enough to be able to find, select, organize and structure the right data from heterogeneous sources”, sums up Moriba Jah. “The connections thus created make it possible to discover causal relationships that would otherwise have remained invisible. In a graph database, each node represents a unit (a person or a thing), and each arc represents a connection or link between two notes. A family tree is a very simple graph “.

Data on space is very strained, Moriba Jah regrets. “People who work with space weather do not talk to satellite trackers, who do not talk to space policy experts. So I said to myself: but what would happen if I gathered all this scattered data about different aspects of space and connect them to each other? to uncover hidden relationships between them? “.

Not before said than done. The engineer and his team began developing AstriaGraph in 2017 based on Neo4j technology and mapping of around 200 critical space debris.

Has this base made it possible to reveal the invisible? “It’s on the right track,” promises Moriba Jah. “Our approach made it possible for us to show where objects are in space and at the same time integrate criteria for recommendations, rules, policies and rules. From there, we can ask questions such as: who complies with the rules? Who does not respect certain recommendations? Does this or that entity respect the various treaties? Until then, no one had been able to establish a link between politics and scientific data. With AstriaGraph, we are taking a step in this direction. »

AstriaGraph monitors about 200 pieces of space debris that could potentially collide with satellites that provide services such as GPS and weather alarms.
AstriaGraph monitors about 200 pieces of space debris that could potentially collide with satellites that provide services such as GPS and weather alarms.

Following debates initiated in 1962, the United Nations Convention on the Registration of Objects, which was launched into “outer space” (a legal term denoting space outside the Earth’s atmosphere) entered into force in 1976. It is administered by the United Nations Office on outer space. , which supports the AstriaGraph project to help its own registration system.

Until now, AstriaGraph could be seen as a research project that was to “demonstrate its possibilities”. But Moriba Jah hopes things will rise with Privateer Space, the company founded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, for whom he acts as scientific advisor.

Today, for example, we do not know who is the biggest polluter in space.

It is also impossible to identify the countries or companies that fly “flags of convenience”, as if on the high seas to avoid complying with space rules. Does he think that this regrettable practice already exists? Of course, Moriba Jah answers. “But the evidence is not directly available in the public domain. That’s what we’re working on. Privateers are focused on building a business intelligence platform that will improve our ability to manipulate data and information. [sur l’espace], to achieve the best possible quality result. This by making tailor-made. »

“I set myself a mission, based on three criteria: to make the space transparent and predictable, and to demand that each actor be responsible for what they do there. »

Moriba JahEngineer and Scientist, University of Texas, Austin

“We can then provide this data to governments that want to monitor and assess stakeholder compliance, or to entrepreneurs who want to develop a waste management activity. For this, they need to know the properties of physical objects: size, shape, material properties, rotational speed. No database compiles this information to date.

Dispel the mysteries

“My principle is that nothing should be secret. I want to clear the mysteries. Either the actors give me their data, or I buy them, or I do reverse development and find the information myself. I set myself a mission: to make space transparent and predictable, and to demand that each actor be responsible for what they do there. »

But in the end, why worry about this waste that orbits the earth but does not fall to the ground?

“The services, technologies and opportunities that we enjoy today – such as banking or agricultural resource tracking – depend almost exclusively on space. Liquid dirt can hit a satellite at any time, which will cause interruption, degradation or even interruption of these services. »

The predictability of the orbits for waste (paint shavings, etc.) and waste is also a prerequisite for space travel and tourism.

“People think it’s the same as taking a plane. We go up and then we go down. But space debris makes the situation very different, ”warns Moriba Jah. “Imagine being told on a plane: ‘You’re in seat 14a. Ah, by the way … there are bullets fired from all over the area we have to cross. One of them could puncture the cabin and hit you. But it is impossible to predict, good luck and above all good luck! ” »

As for the benefits, Moriba Jah says he is in favor of commercial space travel. “I think it’s a necessity,” he explains. “In all areas of human existence and experience, we have always needed to act. Space becomes no exception. [Mais] it is up to us to act so that it happens in a sustainable way, with a long-term view, and make sure to preserve the space environment. »

Leave a Comment