A UT Professor And Newly-Named TED Fellow Wants To Make Space More Sustainable

Moriba Jah wants to mitigate space “junk” like unused satellites, which often end up orbiting the Earth indefinitely.

By Rhonda Fanning & Sol ChaseFebruary 21, 2019 11:39 am,

Humans create a lot of trash. It’s everywhere, from the oceans to the sides of Texas highways to our own backyards. But planet Earth isn’t the only place that we’ve deposited our junk. There’s also lots of junk in space, including decommissioned satellites and pieces of rockets. And it’s all stuck orbiting around the Earth without much rhyme or reason. That means space junk can collide with and damage working satellites. A UT engineer wants to do something about it.

Moriba Jah is an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and was recently named one of 20 TED fellows for 2019, for his work in trying to manage space debris. As a fellow, Jah will speak at a weeklong TED conference in Vancouver in April. He says TED gives the fellows a platform to “amplify” the impact of their work.

Jah’s talk will be about what he calls the “sustainability of space.”

“There are 26,000 objects being tracked right now by the Department of Defense,” Jah says. “We’re trying to keep track of all these things and predict where they’re gonna be in the future.”

He says there’s no regulations so far for Earth debris orbiting in space – no “rules of the road,” he says.

“We need global regulation to help manage all this traffic, to make sure things aren’t just randomly colliding against each other,” Jah says.

For now, the Department of Defense, or DOD, and a small group of other U.S. organizations are monitoring the debris. Jah says they constantly monitor the debris and maintain a large catalog that’s available to people all over the world.

“But it’s not perfect, we don’t know exactly where things are,” Jah says.

So, the problem is that while these groups know what’s out there, there’s little order to how the debris is handled. He says most people think the debris will eventually return to Earth. But in reality, the debris stays in orbit indefinitely.

“It’s almost like getting into a car and driving that car until it runs out of gas and … you just step out of the car and then buy a new one, and then keep on going,” Jah says.

Jah wants to mitigate debris by preventing it from getting stuck in space in the first place. That includes having a plan to dispose of satellites when they becomes unused. He likens it to scouting.

“When you’re in scouting and you go out to your campground, the rule is you bring back what you take with you,” Jah says.

One of the main risks Jah warns of is that so much of our technology on Earth relies on technology we’ve sent into space. That includes satellites that take photos.

“Those images are used from everything from farming to disaster relief,” Jah says. “So the things that we learn from that ultimate high ground of space are becoming more and more critical.”

Jah says it may become difficult to use or deploy more of those photo-taking satellites if the orbits become too crowded with junk.

Written by Caroline Covington.