Over 35,000 pieces of orbital debris – some call it space junk – are floating around Earth. A new Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant involving a Florida Tech researcher may help to declutter space a bit.
Madhur Tiwari, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and director of The Autonomy Lab, along with Creare, a New Hampshire-based innovator in the design and development of cryogenic components and systems, were awarded the $150,000 STTR grant from the Small Business Association in February. With the grant, they will reconstruct 3D models of space debris using machine learning as a part of Space Domain Awareness (SDA) initiatives. SDA means the capability to detect, track, identify and characterize objects in space.
The research will also look at ways to get the information on the debris modeled more efficiently.
“Currently, 3D-modeling of space debris requires ground-in-loop operations, which increases the dependency of the spacecraft on the ground support, thus making the process cumbersome, unreliable and slow,” Tiwari said. “We are building algorithms using machine learning methods so that the spacecraft, enabled with cameras, can basically build 3D models by themselves without any ground support, thus enabling space autonomy.”
The debris problem is a growing issue. According to NASA, orbital debris includes nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris and fragmentation debris. In 2022, a study in Nature Astronomy showed in the past three decades, more than 1,500 rocket bodies have reentered the atmosphere with more than 70 percent of them uncontrolled reentries.
Though some of the objects are only the size of a softball, they travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for even a small piece to damage a satellite or spacecraft. Space shuttle windows were replaced because of damage caused by paint flecks, and according to NASA, millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the highest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit.
To combat some of these debris issues now, there are active debris removal plans, also known as ADR, which look at evaporating small objects using radiation, moving objects using propulsion and decelerating debris in near Earth orbit using lasers.
“Currently, much effort is being put into tracking space debris using ground and space-based systems,” Tiwari said. “However, there still exists a vast amount of untracked debris.”
This grant is a continuation of Tiwari’s overall space debris removal research. Last year, Florida Tech and Tiwari won a $250,000 U.S. Space Force contract to support the debris-cleanup project known as Orbital Prime. While research is in the preliminary stages, the immediate goal is to create algorithms that allow the spacecraft to create 3D models of space debris using onboard cameras by leveraging machine learning.
“By relying less on communication between the spacecraft and earth ground control, we are trying to make the process more autonomous for future missions to support the growth of the space sector,” Tiwari said.