Tracking Space Debris

As Earth’s orbit gets increasingly crowded, we’ll need cutting-edge technology to manage it all. UB is on the case.

space debris.

The U.S. Air Force has chosen the University at Buffalo to lead a $5 million research program that aims to improve the nation’s ability to track and monitor spacecraft, meteoroids and space debris.

The award—one of two issued nationwide from a pool of 40 applicants—is part of a newly established Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program that was created to spur innovation for the Air Force and U.S. Space Force.

It’s getting crowded up there

Space domain awareness involves the detection, identification, tracking and cataloging of objects in space. It is of growing importance because certain areas of space, such as low-Earth orbit, are becoming more and more crowded as a result of increasing international and commercial activities.

“We tend to think of space as this vast, limitless area, but the reality is that it’s becoming increasingly small, especially near Earth,” says principal investigator John Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We’re tracking more than 27,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth. These objects can threaten human and robotic space missions, satellites and other spacecraft.”

Adds Moises Sudit, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and the grant’s co-investigator, “Adversaries are quickly catching up to U.S. capabilities in the space defense area. This research will also help increase our nation’s capability to ensure space superiority.”

Because of the large distances involved, a detailed understanding of the thousands of objects in orbit requires increasingly sophisticated methods to detect them, identify them, predict their trajectories and understand their characteristics and activities. The focus of the project will be to develop new, cutting-edge technologies to do all of that.

WNY a leader in space and defense

The Air Force award comes as Western New York, which has a rich heritage of research and manufacturing in aviation and aerospace, continues to cement its reputation as a leader in the modern aerospace and defense sectors.

UB and industry partners continue to push boundaries in research, design and education in coordination with multiple federal agencies. For example, UB works with the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, which employs approximately 3,000 people and cites an annual economic impact of $300 million.

The new grant also builds upon previous and existing aerospace grants UB has received in recent years, including those from the Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy.