Solving the Space Junk Crisis with HPC

By Jaime Hampton

December 20, 2022

By now, most people are aware of the vast amount of trash currently clogging our oceans, with the Great Pacific garbage patch alone estimated to be twice the size of Texas. Ocean pollution threatens the lives of the people and animals who rely on the ocean for food and as a habitat, creating what some have called an existential crisis. But did you know there is a similar crisis developing in space?

Beginning with the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, humanity has placed thousands of objects into space. Many of these anthropogenic objects remain in orbit to this day, and a great deal of these are no longer useful. There are an estimated 30,000 objects orbiting the Earth ranging in size from a cell phone to a space station, and those are just the items large enough to be tracked. These disused objects are obstructing the “orbital highways” surrounding Earth and are often poorly monitored as they threaten to collide with important satellites and items still in use.

Explaining this space junk crisis is Dr. Moriba Jah, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder and chief scientist of Privateer Space, a company building solutions to address these issues. Jah presented his latest research at the annual technology meeting of the Society of HPC Professionals earlier this month. He is currently working on a space traffic data system that is similar to Waze and is aimed at tracking and documenting space debris.

This zoomed-in view from ASTRIAGraph shows space objects occupying Earth’s orbital highways. (Source: ASTRIAGraph)

The Space Junk Problem

Jah estimates that only about 4,000 of the 30,000 orbiting objects are useful, meaning that close to 90% of these objects are garbage. This space trash includes pieces of satellites, dead satellites, and dead rocket bodies, or leftover systems that once propelled rockets and satellites into space. And those are just the largest items. According to Privateer’s website, the actual quantity of space debris of 1mm in size or larger is estimated to be closer to 100 million.

“From the time that we started [launching rockets], we’ve heard ‘Space is big. What’s the problem?’ You’ve probably heard that about the way we’ve explored land, ocean, and air in terms of pollution,” said Jah. “One of the things humans are consistent with is that, as we explore things, we trash the environment as a consequence. We’re now doing that to space.”

Unlike the tangible experience of swimming in hazardous water or eating fish from a polluted ocean, it may be difficult to imagine how space junk could cause an existential crisis for humanity. Jah explains that many of these objects are untracked or poorly tracked and pose a hazard to everyday services that rely on working satellites. These services include position navigation and timing, financial transactions, communications, global internet, and earth observation activities like monitoring the war in Ukraine.

To drive these services, working satellites are placed into specific orbits which Jah calls orbital highways. These highways intersect with each other, and important satellites have no protection from the space junk that could collide with them at any moment, endangering their vital work. Jah also says these objects are moving fast and collisions can be disastrous. The data shows they are crisscrossing each other at relative speeds of up to 15 times the speed of a bullet.

This zoomed-out view of Earth from Wayfinder demonstrates the staggering quantity of space objects surrounding the planet. (Source: Privateer)

Finding Solutions with High Performance Computing

Jah is working to find solutions to the space debris problem with data and HPC. “As the world’s first space environmentalist, my job is to understand and predict the motion of objects in space,” he said. Jah previously worked as a spacecraft navigator for Mars missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, followed by a decade of working at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Maui where he became acquainted with the space garbage problem and how orbital highways are becoming more and more congested.

After deciding to help solve the space debris issue, Jah asked himself the following questions: “How can I make space more transparent? More predictable? What’s up there and who does it belong to? Can we predict the decision making of any space actor given a common situation? Can I develop a body of evidence to not only help people but also hold them accountable?”

After joining UT Austin in 2017, Jah developed a program called ASTRIAGraph using the computing resources of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Housed on TACC’s Corral storage and data management system, ASTRIAGraph is a knowledge graph database of crowdsourced heterogeneous data regarding objects in space. Jah has since commercially transitioned and re-architected ASTRIAGraph into Wayfinder, Privateer’s open-access and near real-time visualization of satellites and debris in Earth’s orbit.

“At Privateer, a company that I co-founded with Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding last year, we are trying to develop, among many things, a Waze-like traffic application for space,” he said. Privateer emerged from stealth in May and has since been developing what it calls the data infrastructure that will enable sustainable growth for the new space economy, including Wayfinder.

Wayfinder was recently updated and includes a quick search for specific objects, shortcuts to explore particular visualizations, and ephemeris data download capabilities. The program allows users to track space objects at any given time including active satellites, inactive satellites, uncategorized items, rocket bodies, and other debris. Users can filter data sources to look at “constellations” of objects by source or by country of origin and even see which orbital highways these objects occupy. For example, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system that provides internet access to 45 countries is shown by Wayfinder to have 3,271 objects orbiting Earth at the time of this writing.

The Wayfinder platform also enables Crow’s Nest, a free collision risk assessment feature that integrates NASA’s CARA tools for conjunction probability analysis. Privateer says that in the near future, Crow’s Nest will also feature more robust orbital data streaming integrations, account login to access saved settings and lists, filtering, advanced risk analysis, and API access.

Much of the data used by Wayfinder is collected remotely by radar and telescopes around the world, and not just from commercial or government sources. In a fitting nod to its crowdsourced roots, Privateer recently announced a partnership with telescope maker Celestron that will allow owners of Celestron telescopes to participate in collecting space object data for Wayfinder to improve its accuracy, particularly for objects in low Earth orbit.

The founders of Privateer Space. From left: Moriba Jah, Steve Wozniak, and Alex Fielding. (Source: Privateer)

The Future of Space Junk

Tracking and cataloging space debris to get a better understanding of the scope of this problem is only one step in confronting it. Jah says prevention is another step, and developing a circular economy in space that focuses on pollution prevention first and foremost will be key: “Can we minimize single-use satellites and rockets? Can we make these things reusable and recyclable? And for those things that are single-use, can we dispose of these in an environmentally responsible way? That needs to be tackled,” he said.

As far as all the space junk that already occupies Earth’s orbit, Jah thinks there may be future opportunities for space salvage if governments ever acknowledge the need for regulation. “Much like we have salvage laws in maritime, like pure salvage where you can see a piece of junk, collect it, and get compensated for it, we don’t have those salvage laws in space. We would need those laws to create a marketplace of space garbage cleaners.”

Privateer says its Wayfinder app offers a vital service for collecting and processing information about space objects and that the data and applications built on it will allow space operators to maneuver safely and effectively.

“We’re finding ways to make space safer, more secure, and more sustainable in the long term, believing in the ethos that all things are interconnected, and that we are in an existential crisis. And the only way through it is by having a successful conversation with the environment,” said Jah.

While Privateer is poised to be an innovator in the space object tracking sphere, others have also addressed this issue, including the U.S. Space Force. Lockheed Martin was tasked with building the Space Fence, a space surveillance radar site located on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The $1.5 billion facility became operational in 2020 and its S-band phased-array radar has capabilities for tracking objects and debris measuring less than 10 centimeters. Earlier this year, the agency announced that its cloud-based data environment, the Unified Data Library, can now ingest observation information directly from Space Fence radar and connect with Department of Defense sensor nodes as part of the Space Surveillance Network. The system is currently tracking about 27,000 objects.

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