near-earth space with moriba jah

On April 5, 2021, the College of the Environment welcomed Moriba Jah, associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin, to present his lecture Near-Earth Space: The Lost Ecological Pleiad. The Earth has a number of ecosystems we can call an ecological Pleiades. To date, these ecological Pleiades have been constrained to the land, oceans, and air. However, there is an additional ecosystem, near-Earth space, which has yet to be globally acknowledged. To this end, Jah’s lecture focused on near-Earth space as a “lost” ecological Pleiad, comprised of “some abiotic objects such as micrometeoroids, a few humans in the Space Station, and a large number of anthropogenic space objects as a consequence of our technological developments.” In his lecture, Jah explored the known evolution of this Lost Pleiad, and underscored the need for its environmental protection.

Jah opened the lecture by giving context to the sheer number of human-made objects in Earth’s orbit. The assumed population of space objects is roughly half a million, ranging in size from a speck of paint to the International Space Station. Jah stressed that of that assumed half million, we can only measure about 30,000, and the total space population is unmeasurable with the precision of current instruments. He also noted that out of those potential 500,000 objects, only 3,500 are functioning, saying, “Much less than 1 percent of everything up there that we’re responsible for actually serves a purpose.”

Next, Jah introduced the concept of Space Domain Awareness (SDA), which encourages those introducing objects into near-Earth space to reflect on three main questions: Why do it, or what’s the need? What should it do? And, finally, how will it get done? These questions demand that scientists be aware of things like the environmental hazards for objects in space, which are not yet fully understood, and flight hazards from other anthropogenic space objects. Careful traffic management is required to ensure “safe operations, security, and sustainability.” Jah shared a phrase he has all his students recite: “To know it, you must measure it; to understand it, you must predict it!”

The lecture then moved on to a breakdown of a Johari window of the different states of “knowing” information necessary for the SDA. Because there are still many unknowns about space, decisions are often based on inferential statistics, which means that scientists “draw conclusions mired in uncertainty.” Jah examined the four states in which scientists make decisions about and examine data: The ideal decision making state is the known-known, where you are aware of things you have measured and make inferences based on that data. Known-unknowns cover predictions, or things you are aware of not having measured. Unknown-knowns encompass that which has been unknowingly measured, with Jah noting that “this is where discovery comes into play.” Finally, unknown-unknowns are everything that a scientist is unaware of and has not measured.

There are certain qualities that Jah describes as the essential ingredients for success for the future of technology in near-Earth space, including independent quantification, monitoring, and assessment for space objects; sustainability metrics; and the development of common practices and standards. Jah explained that he asks himself, “Does any of my work make space more transparent?” He also asks questions of accountability and predictability while looking to preempt any miscommunications based on cultural contexts, for example, saying, “It’s not just physics!”

Of sustainability metrics, Jah’s vision for the management of the near-Earth Pleiad incorporates traditional ecological knowledge: “Can we apply these tenets of traditional ecological knowledge to achieve improved ecological sustainability in near-Earth space? I believe the answer is, absolutely!” This led into the importance of establishing common practices, with Jah saying, “If this is an additional ecosystem, and it is a finite resource…it, too, is in need of environmental protection. Once we can talk about environmental protection, then we can… apply metrics such as carrying capacity and traffic footprints.”

Jah also described the need for regulations around the use of this Pleiad, while noting that nuance is necessary given the different access to knowledge concerning space. “Even across space-faring nations, the knowledge of space is uneven,” he said, noting that these imbalances of scientific knowledge will result in imbalanced practices in space. “We’d like to develop norms of behavior so that…we can achieve common practice. […] For countries to really accept common norms of behavior, there needs to be common knowledge. That will facilitate the development of the norms of behavior.”

Prior to joining UT Austin, Dr. Moriba Jah was the Director of the University of Arizona’s Space Object Behavioral Sciences with applications to Space Domain Awareness, Space Protection, Space Traffic Monitoring, and Space Debris research to name a few. Preceding that, Dr. Jah was the lead for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Advanced Sciences and Technology Research Institute for Astronautics (ASTRIA) and a Principal Investigator for Detect/Track/Id/Characterize Program at AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate.