Space junk revealed by University of Texas graph database
Aerospace engineers, led by space environmentalist Moriba Jah, at The University of Texas at Austin have built a graph database, AstriaGraph, to track space junk that is a threat to life on Earth
Moriba Jah, director of computational astronautical sciences and technologies for the Oden Institute at The University of Texas at Austin, says he would not willingly go into space. “No, not me, man.”
The aerospace engineer and self-described “space environmentalist”, who started his career as a security specialist for the US Air Force, spent over seven years at Nasa as a spacecraft navigation engineer and over eight at the US Air Force Research Laboratory, including as director for the Advanced Sciences and Technology Research Institute for Astronautics (Astria), knows whereof he speaks. And he is on a mission to make space transparent so it can at once benefit humanity and be cherished.
Part of that mission is a graph database, AstriaGraph, which tracks more than 26,000 objects in near Earth orbit, of which 3,500 serve a useful purpose, including the International Space Station (ISS). Everything else is junk.
The graph monitors around 200 pieces of space debris that could collide with satellites that provide services such as global positioning systems and weather warnings. Jah describes these as ticking time bombs in an interview with the BBC.
What does he want to see happen with space junk in the near future? Talking to Computer Weekly, he says: “I’d like humanity to embrace near Earth as a finite resource that is in need of environmental protection, just like land, air and ocean. I’d like to see near Earth space treated – I won’t say as land, air and ocean because those have been mistreated – but at least considered an additional ecosystem. And I’d like to see every person embrace stewardship [of near Earth] as if their lives depended on it.”
Moriba Jah, The University of Texas at Austin
Jah first got the idea for using graph technology from a TV programme, which demonstrated how you could identify people cheating on their partners using a combination of data sources – from telephone directories to Uber ride records, and the like.
“That made me realise the power in a knowledge graph,” he says. “You don’t necessarily have to have a satellite tracking every move of every person. What you need to be able to do is to smartly organise and curate heterogeneous data, from disparate sources. When you link these things, there’s an opportunity to discover what otherwise would have been hidden, causal relationships.”
Each node in a graph database represents an entity, such as a person or a thing, and each edge represents a connection or relationship between two nodes. A family tree is a simple graph database.
Space data siloed
Information about space is very “cylinder”, very siloed, says Jah. “There are the space weather people, but they don’t talk to the satellite tracking people. And those people don’t talk to the space policy people. I thought, ‘What if I could create this mega set of all these disparate sources of information about stuff in space and find a way to link these together to discover otherwise hidden relationships?”
Jah and his team at Austin have been developing AstriaGraph, using Neo4j’s technology, since 2017. Is it delivering on his original vision of making the invisible visible?
“We’re on the path to doing that,” he says. “One of the things it has allowed us to do is take evidence of where objects are located in space and then, separately, ingest criteria for guidelines, rules, policies and regulations. We then ask: Who is compliant? Who isn’t within certain guidelines? How are people actually implementing different treaties?
“Nobody’s been able to really link policy with scientific data in such a way that allows you to do those sorts of queries. AstriaGraph has given us an idea about that.”
The United Nations Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space came into force in 1976, after negotiations between UN states began in 1962. It is administered by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Jah told The Register that UNOOSA engaged the AstriaGraph project to monitor its registration system.
So far, says Jah, the project has been very research-orientated, “demonstrating capability” only. But he anticipates that Privateer Space, a company founded by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and for which he is chief scientific advisor, will take the mission forward.
At present, he says, we cannot say who is the biggest polluter of near space. We also cannot see which countries or companies are flying “flags of convenience” to avoid space regulations as you can do on the high seas.
Is there anyone engaged in this nefarious practice already, does he think? “Of course. But the evidence isn’t out there in the public realm. So that’s the thing I’m working on,” says Jah.
“Privateer is focused on developing a decision intelligence platform that will develop the ability to manipulate data and information [about space] in a way so as to maximise desired outcomes. And do that in a way that can be bespoke,” he explains.
“It can be for people in governments who want to monitor and assess compliance, and people who want to develop businesses for cleaning up junk where they need to know very specific physical characteristics of objects in terms of size, shape, material properties, tumble rates. Right now, there’s no database where you can look that stuff up,” adds Jah.
Taking the mystery out of space
“My model is nihil arcana est – nothing hides. My [ambition] is to make the mysterious go away. So either people give me data, or I can purchase data, or I’m going to reverse engineer and find things out. I’m on a mission to make space transparent, predictable, and hold people accountable for their behaviour. Those are my three measuring sticks.”
What will be the benefit of making near space more visible? How worried should we be about the junk orbiting the planet?
“One consequence is that services, technologies, capabilities that we have now like banking and monitoring for agricultural resources, are now pretty much uniquely provided by space-based platforms,” he says. “At any point in time, one of these pieces of debris, predictable or unpredictable, might slam into a satellite and cause the loss, disruption or degradation of that service.”
“My model is nihil arcana est – nothing hides. My [ambition] is to make the mysterious go away. So either people give me data, or I can purchase data, or I’m going to reverse engineer and find things out. I’m on a mission to make space transparent, predictable, and hold people accountable for their behaviour”
Moriba Jah, The University of Texas at Austin
Jah also cautions against space tourism, as it is presently constituted, with such trailblazers as Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner.
“People feel it is like taking a plane trip – you go up and you come down. But the space debris problem makes it very different,” he explains. “Imagine if before you get on the plane they say, ‘Here’s your ticket, your seat is 14a. I hope you have a pleasant trip. But, by the way, there are random bullets being fired across the airways as you’re in this plane, and one of them just might pierce your aircraft. And we can’t predict if that’s going to happen or not. Have a safe flight!’”
It is early days indeed for space travel for the masses.
But Jah does favour the commercialisation of space. “I think it’s necessary,” he says. “In every domain of human existence and experience, we’ve needed commercialisation. Space is no different. We just need to do it in a way that’s long-term sustainable and not to the detriment of the space environment.”
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