Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist, former NASA navigator and renowned thought leader in space situational awareness, has joined The University of Texas at Austin as an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering.
Jah, who starts at UT Austin on April 10, previously served as the director of the Space Object Behavioral Sciences Initiative at the University of Arizona and the head of the space situational awareness program at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Prior to those roles, he led research programs in space object behavior assessment and prediction for the Air Force Research Laboratory. He spent his early career as a spacecraft navigator for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1999 to 2006, where he charted courses for the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
At UT Austin, Jah will launch the Advanced Sciences and Technology Research in Astronautics (ASTRIA) program, a new version of the program that he directed at the Air Force Research Laboratory from 2007 to 2015. The program will bring together expertise in astrodynamics, remote sensing, fracture mechanics, computational engineering and sciences, machine learning, big data science/analytics, signal processing, space physics and astronomy.
“Moriba is an internationally-recognized leader in the field of space situational awareness and space traffic management. His work is backed by 20 years of experience in spacecraft navigation and space object detection,” said Noel Clemens, chair of the aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department. “We are excited to bring his energy and ideas into our department, and we look forward to the collaborations and innovations that spring from his new program.”
Jah was drawn to UT Austin because of its collaborative research centers, which are at the intersection of space research and big data.
“I see UT Austin as the sweet spot for world-class, collaborative research for many reasons. The Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics is recognized globally in its fields and the Center for Space Research is a pioneer for satellite remote sensing,” Jah said. “Combining this expertise with defense-related work in the Space and Geophysics Lab at UT’s Applied Research Laboratories as well as the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, known for its big data science, brings powerful capabilities to the table. This is where the magic happens.”
Establishing ASTRIA at UT Austin allows Jah the opportunity to build upon his track record in the areas of space surveillance and space traffic management and the tracking and cataloging of space debris, also known as “space junk.” There are approximately 22,000 objects the size of a smart phone currently orbiting Earth. Of these, only 1,300 objects are working components, such as satellites, and the remainder are so-called “garbage.” And presently, there are no rules and regulations governing space traffic, which could prove problematic down the road.
“Our society has become more dependent than ever on satellites orbiting Earth. From satellites that give us valuable information on weather, to satellite TV, to banking systems that manage our global economies and GPS systems on our phones, we rely heavily on satellites orbiting our planet and we need to keep them safe from harm,” Jah said. “I plan to use the best science and engineering to understand all of these space objects and to help our policymakers make educated decisions to keep these systems safe. There is a loud demand signal for this, and I’m answering that call.”
The ability to predict the movement of space objects, firmly planted in Astrodynamics, is key to preventing collisions and the loss, interruption or degradation of satellites and other space operations. One of the first challenges that ASTRIA will tackle is space traffic and debris modeling, a major issue that underscores long-term sustainability of space activities and orbital safety, Jah said.
Jah participates on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, where he said he sees and hears the need for his research program, ASTRIA, firsthand.
Jah’s graduate work at the University of Colorado at Boulder was under the advisement of the late professor George H. Born, a global leader in orbit determination and creator of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research. Born was also a graduate student under Byron Tapley, director of the Cockrell School’s Center for Space Research.
“Coming to the ASE/EM department is like being welcomed onto hallowed ground, and I owe many successes in my career in great part to professor Born and professor Tapley. I want to continue Born’s legacy and take it to the next level. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for the faculty here at UT Austin — I’m joining a great family.”
Jah received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, in 1999 and his master’s and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2001 and 2005. He is a fellow in the American Astronautical Society, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety; an associate fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and a senior member and journal associated editor with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has published over 75 papers in peer-reviewed journals, conferences and symposia and has been an invited lecturer and keynote speaker at over 20 national and international space events, workshops and forums.