By Moriba Jah
ASTRIAGraph, the world’s first crowd-sourced, space traffic monitoring and assessment system, can trace its roots back to a landfill in Maui.
It was there, while working for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, that I began to see the connection between the way we were treating our ecosystem and what we are doing to near-Earth space.
Even though the Aina, or land, is a cherished and extremely finite resource in Maui, officials there struggled—and still struggle—to establish and implement sustainable norms of behavior to preserve the ecosystem. Driving around Kahului, I was struck by how such a small island with so much to lose could still fail to act. Meanwhile, at work, I was amazed at the amount of garbage humans had already created in near-Earth space.
I realized that we humans were at it again.
What western culture did to Maui in terms of exploiting the Aina to the detriment of its ecosystem, we are doing to near-Earth space. With one key difference: even fewer are aware of the detrimental path we are on when it comes to space.
Near-Earth space is geopolitically contested and commercially contested. It is also, like Earth, a finite resource in need of environmental protection. Most people may not think of space as finite, but we don’t place space objects in random orbits. Instead, like transportation systems on Earth, we use specific orbital “highways” to move satellites into position. But unlike Earth, we have no globally agreed-upon traffic rules in space.
So, most of what we put there, stays there. There is no cleanup crew. Objects as small as a cell phone or as large as a bus simply continue to drift aimlessly on the orbital highways, now hazards to all other objects in the same gravitational “current.”
When it comes to space traffic management, one cannot manage what one does not know, and one cannot know what one does not measure. Yet we are unable to even track all the hazardous objects in space, making it difficult to craft a solution to our traffic problem. Those entities that do have ways to observe and measure “resident space objects” do not openly share them for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and others, frankly, paranoid or even foolish.
You see, our space traffic problem is exacerbated not just by geopolitical jockeying for position, but also by a new space race, a gold rush from a new space industry to try to monetize the services and capabilities afforded by space-based infrastructure and assets.
No domain of human activity has lacked malicious behaviors. To think that space is somehow different is, at best, naive. This means that the clutter in near-Earth space is not just a problem of space safety and sustainability; it is also a problem of security.
Across the globe, space experts unanimously agree that something must be done. The United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space recently adopted 21 guidelines which, if implemented, would take us toward achieving long-term sustainability in space.
However, as a global community we lack a framework to implement and enforce these guidelines. Existing space management systems across the world are varied, disparate, inconsistent, and provide no real incentive for the establishment, implementation, and adherence to sustainable norms of behavior. One effort that is attempting to change this is the establishment of a Space Sustainability Rating, under the World Economic Forum.
The first step to developing a global framework to maximize space safety, security, and sustainability lies in quantifying the problem. We must amass reliable measurements, gather empirical data and evidence, and from these, infer causal relationships in our near-Earth space ecosystem. Traditional Ecological Knowledge actually has this as one of its tenets, and we should listen to the voices of our indigenous peoples who, over millennia, have learned how to achieve a balance with an ecosystem.
We should not wait for a government or company to create the perfect system to address space traffic and space junk. If I learned anything in Maui, it is that we must get out in front of this issue now. An international consortium of academics can jointly develop the sciences and technologies required with minimal bureaucratic hurdles.
At The University of Texas at Austin, we have taken the first step in establishing this international academic consortium. In addition to developing and delivering ASTRIAGraph, we have also created a monitoring system for the world’s first conjunction streaming service, which predicts close approaches between any two pair of space objects over a continuous “sliding window.”
To be sure, an academic consortium does not provide the complete and consistent operational capability required to address the precise real-time needs of the planet’s space traffic. Among other concerns, academia is unlikely to ever have the exquisite sensing capabilities that governments and industry possess. This is what industry must work with governments to deliver.
Nevertheless, our academic consortium serves several valuable roles. It shows the world what a meaningful partnership looks like, explores the art of the possible, and delivers this into the state of practice. We are continuing to expand our partnerships with academic institutions worldwide in this shared computational and research environment.
Moriba Jah is an associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin. He recently hosted and co-chaired the 6th annual Space Traffic Management conference: “Facing the Security Challenge.” He is also a #PublicVoices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.