From Satellites to Space Junk

UB engineers are at work on a federally funded project to develop the high-tech tools needed for tracking exactly what’s floating around out there.

illustration of space junk orbiting around planet.

As NASA, the U.S. Space Force and even private businesses envision the potential for significant economic development in deep space, keeping tabs on what’s being sent out—and what’s already there—will be of critical importance.

Now, with funding from the U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Laboratory, two University at Buffalo researchers are working on a project to address the challenges related to tracking satellites, debris and other objects that occupy an area of space known as high Earth orbit, an area used for communication, navigation, scientific research and military operations.

Space domain awareness

“Space is more crowded than ever, and we expect the number of objects orbiting Earth to continue to grow,” said John Crassidis, Moog Professor of Innovation and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Crassidis and Moises Sudit, professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, have been awarded $1 million from the U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Laboratory, part of a larger $5 million grant led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

As the U.S. becomes increasingly reliant on satellites and other spacecraft, Crassidis said, it’s incredibly important that it develop sophisticated technology to monitor and manage their activities, an area of research called space domain awareness.

Preparing for a new frontier

Creating even more opportunities and challenges is the discovery of frozen water at the moon’s lunar south pole, which makes it much easier to sustain life. As more nations and businesses target the moon for economic development, there will be greater potential for conflict. Part of the team’s research focus will be to develop new decision-making tools to avoid conflict and strategic surprise.

“While the U.S. has made many successful moon landings, we’re working on developing tools and technology to advance sustainable human economic activity there for years to come,” said Sudit.

As such, the project, called STARLIT, will fund an array of activities, including lunar-focused astrodynamics, sensing research and conflict simulation. It also aims to expand the space workforce by creating new graduate education pathways.