Folded among the big-ticket programs in President Joe Biden’s latest budget proposal is a small sliver — $88 million — to study and track space junk. That includes defunct satellites and the debris caused from explosions in space.
The president wants the Office of Space Commerce to ramp up its ability to track this stuff in real time. Sure, $88 million is not a lot to do that. But it’s a lot more than the $10 million the office got last year.
I spoke with Moriba Jah, who teaches orbital mechanics at University of Texas at Austin, and is chief science officer and co-founder of space debris tracking company Privateer. He says scientists are currently tracking about 50,000 pieces of space debris, down to the size of a cellphone, but there’s more out there. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Moriba Jah: If we look at the number of pieces that go below the size of the cellphone, all the way to a speck of paint, we actually believe that it’s probably more like a million or several million. And these are the things that we can’t track. And for all intents and purposes, it’s almost like random bullets. And so just like a bullet can do a lot of damage at the speed of a bullet, something that is, you know, [when] a speck of paint traveling at 15 times the speed of a bullet hits a satellite, or even an astronaut, piercing their suit, it’s a bad day.
Meghan McCarty Carino: What tools do we have to track this space debris?
Jah: The sensing systems that we have to do this sort of stuff are really radars and telescopes.
McCarty Carino: And to what extent can you track things and actually predict where they might end up in the future?
Jah: There’s uncertainty in everything. We can’t measure everything, so we have to infer stuff. And even though we have these radars and telescopes, we only kind of have an idea of where in space these things are. And orbital mechanics gives us the physics of how things are going to move, but because our initial understanding of where something is is uncertain, that means that whatever we predict, we’re actually predicting uncertainty as we go along in the future.
McCarty Carino: What tools do we have to minimize the inherent ambiguity in these processes?
Jah: There’s a couple of things that we can do to minimize the ambiguity. One is just have better models of the physics and actually the ability to predict what people might do in a common situation. Two is actually collecting more measurements. So, there’s strength in numbers. If we can aggregate massive quantities of independent observations — and that’s the key thing, independent observations — minimizing ambiguity comes as a result of aggregating independent observations. And each new independent piece of evidence can then remove ignorance. And that’s what we’re after, we’re after ignorance removal.
McCarty Carino: And so how meaningful would this extra funding in the president’s budget be for the work that you do?
Jah: I think a lot of good could be done with it. There are so many commercially available capabilities out there, I think the hard part, really, is to integrate these sorts of things. Because so many people say, “Oh, well, I have the answer. I’m Acme Inc., just give me money, and I’ll solve it for you,” which is complete rubbish. Nobody has that capability. But one of the things that I ask people is: How do you know that you have the world’s most accurate clock? And the answer is, you have hundreds of them. Each one has an opinion on the time. And by aggregating all these opinions, you get to see the mean of what the time is. And that’s the time standard. And I think [with] space traffic and space situational awareness, if the U.S. government purchases and acquires all of these opinions, and aggregates these and integrates them, then you can use that as a standard. So I think that’s how the government needs to actually use this money.
McCarty Carino: You came up with a tool a few years ago that is publicly available, AstriaGraph. How does that work? Where does it pull data from? What makes it different?
Jah: AstriaGraph is trying to get to this idea of the aggregation of multiple sources of information. And so the idea is just that. It’s to aggregate all these sorts of information, see where all these opinions reside, and then maybe find a way to achieve consensus amongst these opinions. Some are conflicting, but that’s what I did at UT. Now, co-founding Privateer with Alex Fielding and Steve Wozniak, basically I’m taking AstriaGraph, which is mostly something demonstrative and research-y, to something that people can actually depend upon and provides some 24/7 services and capabilities. Like a Waze for space, is kind of the direction that we’re going with that.
McCarty Carino: And in sort of an ironic twist, I understand that Privateer might actually launch its own satellite to get better data on this stuff.
Jah: When we want to get data on what’s going on in the oceans, for instance, we launch buoys to collect some data and to do monitoring and that sort of thing. I kind of see it analogous to that. Buoys are part of the ocean traffic, but they’re serving a purpose. And so, we’re going to have some satellites that are going to be on orbit, doing some monitoring. They’re going to augment other sorts of information that we bring in. And certainly we’re going to be partnering with other folks and having our sensors on their satellites. So, I think it’s all of the above. It’s really a decision intelligence platform that doesn’t say no to any source of information.
McCarty Carino: It’s interesting you compared this idea to a Waze for space. When you look at the AstriaGraph, or the new Privateer one, that’s what kind of what it reminded me of. It’s like a map, dense with all these little dots and every dot is a piece or space junk. The idea is you’ll sell these maps. I mean, who might buy them?
Jah: The thing about me is I’m always like a hybrid kind of a dude. And what I’m saying by that is that there’s going to be multiple levels of information. Some will be free to the public, for sure. And whatever is free to the public will actually be useful to help with making space safer, more secure, more sustainable. If people want, “I want a prediction, a day’s not good enough, I want a week’s worth of predictions with a lot more accuracy and precision,” or “I want to know who’s maneuvering instantaneously around my objects,” I think these are things that we can charge a fee for. Waze is a participatory sensing network, meaning we, the users of Waze, get to actually provide information that everybody in the network gets to take advantage of — you know, pieces of debris on the road, and that sort of stuff. So, we’re thinking about allowing the general public and amateur astronomers, [about letting] the global community actually participate in providing some of the information that then it gets some benefit from as well.
McCarty Carino: Tracking this space junk seems to be very important, but is it inevitable that it’s just going to keep growing over time? Are there ways to actually remove some of it?
Jah: When it comes to the growth of the space junk, I equate it the spread of COVID: We want to flatten the curve on the growth of space debris. And the thing that is the main hindrance is a lack of compliance with the science. So, there’s a group of people around the globe, scientists, engineers, whatever, that have said, “Hey, if you follow this checklist, we can actually flatten the curve on the growth of debris. But by and large, the guidelines are just recommendations, suggestions, instead of law. So, I think the countries that authorize [and] license people to operate in space, they need to make these guidelines law in their own country, and then hold their own citizenry accountable for following these things, and enforce that.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
Jah referenced a United Nations policy on debris mitigation, which not everyone is exactly following. It includes guidance on avoiding intentional destruction of spacecraft, according to a 2010 paper from the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. I don’t know why all these official government space things sound like spoof names to me … this stuff is definitely serious business.
In fact, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee recently discussed space debris as a potential national security threat, according to a story from Wired. It’s become a concern in the war in Ukraine, where satellite imagery and satellite internet are really important. Space junk collisions could put those satellites at risk and make it unclear whether Russia is actively trying to disrupt satellite transmissions.
As to efforts to clean up some of the junk, Scientific American reports ideas over the years have included nets, lasers, giant foam balls and harpoons. One company is actually working on magnet-based technology to help capture and burn up debris. The magazine says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Meanwhile, it’s about to get even more crowded up in low-Earth orbit. Amazon just reserved more than 80 rocket launches as part of a plan to send more than 3,000 satellites into orbit to offer high-speed broadband. Not that I would ever accuse Amazon of propagating junk, though the stack of cardboard boxes accumulating in my recycle bin might beg to differ.