Dealing with Space Junk and Managing Space Traffic is the Focus of UT Austin Conference


Moriba Jah, director of the Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in Astronautics (ASTRIA) program at The University of Texas at Austin (courtesy photo)

Space is a finite resource and needs environmental protection, according to Moriba K. Jah, astrodynamicist.

“People, in general, take for granted the number of services and capabilities every day that are space-based,” said Jah, director of the Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in Astronautics (ASTRIA) program at The University of Texas at Austin.

And Space junk poses a real threat to the U.S. and to communications satellites and the International Space Station and other endeavors in space.

How to achieve space safety, security, and sustainability for the growing number of objects in space is the focus of the next annual International Academy of Astronautics UT Space Traffic Management Conference on Feb. 19-20th at the University of Texas at Austin’s Mulva Conference Center in the EER Building at 2501 Speedway. Registration is open now for the conference.

Jah and his team of researchers at UT have created the world’s first real-time streaming of near-miss collisions and activity in space. They also developed ASTRIAGraph for identifying and tracking objects in space.

Space is like the Wild West, Jah said.

Space has become like squatter’s rights for those who get there first and new space companies are staking their frontiers. There is a potential to make lots and lots of money in space, Jah said.

“There is a gold rush for what can I launch as soon as possible to lay my stake in space,” Jah said.

There is nothing wrong with these endeavors, Jah said.

“But we need to proceed with the vision for long term sustainability of the environment,” he said.

Drawing from indigenous populations and their relationships with the environment (so-called Traditional Ecological Knowledge) is a good place to start to develop how to behave in space, Jah said. It comes down to data, sharing information and having common goals, he said.

Space needs to be transparent; it needs accountability and it needs to be predictable, Jah said.

The World Economic Forum is developing a space sustainability rating for people that are going to be operating in space to incentivize sustainable behavior, Jah said.

Every day, the globe relies more and more on space and satellites to provide technology connectivity for devices connected to the Internet of Things, television, cell phones, and other applications, Jah said.

Global positioning satellite or GPS also provides navigation with applications like Waze and Google and Apple Maps and more. And satellites provide information on weather conditions.

“A lot of lives have been saved because of space technology,” Jah said.

Satellites have other applications in agriculture, education, financial transactions, military surveillance and more.

There are roughly 26,000 human-made objects in space ranging from the size of a cell phone all the way up to the International Space Station, Jah said. Roughly about 3,000 things work and all the rest is garbage, Jah said. There are also objects as small as a fleck of paint that cannot be tracked, but move at speeds greater than a bullet and can potentially damage satellites, he said.

People around the globe think there are about 500,000 objects that could damage satellites, but most are too small to be tracked, Jah said.

The earth’s orbit is kind of becoming like Saturn with rings of debris around it, Jah said.

“What we are doing to the oceans with plastics, we are doing to space,” Jah said.

Jah delivered the keynote speech at the first annual SpaceATX conference held last November at the University of Texas at Austin at the Blanton Museum of Art’s auditorium.

Last year, Wired Magazine named Jah as one of the 25 people racing to save our planet. He was also selected as a 2019 TED Fellow.