Glancing skyward can give the illusion of a vast, empty space. The reality is outer space is congested, contested and competitive.
That’s how one University of Arizona scientist describes it, and he’s leading research to keep human-made objects in space moving in an orderly fashion.
Maneuvering safely in traffic is all about situational awareness.
On the ground, there are rules of the road, with travel lanes, traffic lights and speed limits. Ships follow sea lanes to traverse the world’s expansive oceans. In the air, pilots file flight plans, showing their altitude and how they will get from one place to another with the assistance of air traffic controllers.
But what about space?
“We don’t have any sorts of rules like that in space," UA’s Moriba Jah, the world’s first space traffic controller. "We do have some guidelines that have been put out by an international organization led by space agencies. Because it’s governmental, it doesn’t necessarily bring in the expertise of academics and private industry."
A crowded space
Since the dawn of the space age in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, space has become crowded with objects, many of which are no longer functioning.
Jah is an aerospace engineer who has guided spacecraft to Mars. He heads the Space Object Behavioral Sciences initiative, which does just what its name says. It studies space objects’ behavior.
The U.S. Department of Defense catalogs and tracks objects in space, both functional craft and space junk.
One hundred nations and commercial concerns have the capacity to launch objects into orbit around Earth and beyond. There is no mechanism for or requirement that governments report what they send into space.
“We need to work a little bit better at getting those sorts of guidelines out there," Jah said. "I agree that they need to be non-binding, but everybody will kind of see it in their best interest to do it."
The worry, he said, is whether scientists have the ability to predict space objects’ movements to prevent collisions that could damage or destroy them.
“Right now we lack a common pool of data that is exposed to everyone," Jah said. "One of the things we’re certainly trying to promote is having at the academic and at the non-governmental level some sort of international space traffic monitoring service where everybody donates some bit of information and everybody can share in that openly and freely."
Travis Blake of Lockheed Martin was among the panelists at a conference at UA this spring organized by the space object behavior initiative. He’s an Air Force veteran and has worked on space surveillance at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“Our daily life, the life of the average citizen of the earth, is touched by multiple capabilities delivered from spacecraft every day,” Blake said.
Spacecraft enable us to use our cell phones, watch television and they give governments the ability to track terrorists and forecast the weather. Keeping them operational is the goal of the UA’s research.
The Arizona Science Desk is a collaboration of public broadcasting entities in the state, including Arizona Public Media.