Space is not a safe environment to operate in,” says aerospace engineer Moriba Jah.

With the public and private sector both rushing towards space, satellite coverage is turning near-Earth orbit into an obstacle course. Humans need to not just keep better track of all the objects zipping around in space, but to understand their behavior better and learn if and how they can be managed. In other words, the space industrial complex needs to avoid burying itself before it evolves into something bigger and more central to life on this planet. Taking into account the current level of orbital debris, the problem is long since critical.

Someone needs to be in charge and no one is. Jah wants the gig.

Jah, an expert in space situational awareness at the the Air Force Research Laboratory and a former spacecraft navigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California, can make a solid case he’s qualified. In the past, he’s helped steer the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and several other spacecraft bound for the red planet. he tells Inverse that his entire career has centered on understanding and predicting the motion of objects in space. That’s probably why the University of Arizona just tapped him to direct a new initiative focused exclusively on space object behavioral science, which Jah describes as “the integrated and multi-disciplinary study of that which governs, drives, and influences the behavior of objects in space.”

Here’s what Jah needs to understand: interactions between space objects and their environment, interactions between colliding space objects, interactions between space objects and tech designed to control space object, interactions between policy makers and agencies, and interactions between private stake-holders on the ground. It’s a lot. For Jah, the astrophysics might be easier than the politics. Either way, there will be a learning curve. But Jah and UA are dead set on turning their institution into the world’s premier hub for understanding how objects in space work, how to keep track of them, and how to apply that knowledge to space traffic management.

“What MIT was to the Apollo program is what I seek UA to be to space situational awareness, space protection, space traffic management, orbital debris mitigation — via a solid core in space object behavioral sciences,” Jah says.

Moriba Jah

The ambition behind such a a goal is equaled only by how daunting it is as well. “We don’t really have a firm grasp of the physics, the interaction between objects in space and their environment (such as space weather, microgravity effects, etc.), or even the consequences of policy decisions, such as the location of graveyard orbits, or assuming mission scenarios of only 25 years,” says Jah.

There are six different technical areas that need improvement if we’re going to foster and sustain a safe space environment: modeling, data collection, data fusion and exploitation, sensor calibration and performance, space object description and representation, and information management.

Many of these problems, especially modeling, are exacerbated by the fact that “we have no resolved images of everything in space,” says Jah. “We can only infer object characteristics by solving an extremely large and difficult inverse problem….with sparse, biased, corrupt, and incomplete data sets.” There’s clear understanding of what the source is for many — if not most — objects in space right now.

So we need more data, obviously. Unfortunately, current collection methods tend to skew to a “one-size-fits-all model,” says Jah. “We seem to do ok for about 20000 objects but there is inarguable evidence that there are many unknown objects. We detect many things that are not correlated with any known database.” And that makes it much more difficult to determine whether those objects are harmless or pose a threat to satellites or spacecraft currently in orbit.

Jah thinks that while current goals about expanding the catalogue of tracked objects are a good step forward, they make the mistake of assuming all objects in space behave the same — which could potentially lead to more inaccuracies than before. “We describe objects as if they were all spheres or cannonballs,” he says.

Remediating these problems and improving situational awareness about objects in space is no easy task. Jah is clear that his new initiative doesn’t call for seeking out operational control of objects. Instead, he and his colleagues are just looking to demonstrate how different technologies can be integrated into a single system to provide data to private and government-run space organizations alike, to run their programs safely and effectively.

When pressed for the kinds of technologies that would be worth pursuing, Jah is not really able to provide specifics. Research into space object behavior is in its infancy, and the kinds of tools that would play a central role have yet to be thought of. But Jah thinks that data sharing and increased exposure and access to information will be very important — especially for developing nations that do not have the money or resources to fund their own studies. He also thinks that advances in algorithms and that make better predictions or simulate more realistic outcomes will be helpful. Big data analytics will be crucial. And of course, we’re going to need better sensors that can track and tag new and smaller objects whirring around in zero gravity.

“We are casting a wide, rigorous, and comprehensive net on this because we need to,” says Jah. “Our motto is: ‘nothing hides!’”

Photos via Pete Brown