MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A professor at WVU has said that the burgeoning space economy, valued in the trillions, may be in trouble due to the increasing threat of space debris.
According to Piyush Mehta, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University, despite the space economy being on track to be “valued at a trillion dollars by the end of 2030,” a field made up of millions of pieces of space debris orbiting the earth may get in the way.
According to NASA, a major portion of this debris is made up of active satellites residing in low Earth orbit, a region between 200 and 1000 km in the sky.
Space infrastructure such as navigation, weather and communication satellites are threatened by space debris.
“In low Earth orbit, our ability to safeguard these space assets depends on modeling of the aerodynamic forces acting on the satellites, specifically satellite drag. The drag force acting on a satellite is affected by various physical parameters, however, the most crucial and uncertain are the drag coefficient and mass density,” Mehta said.
One parameter is held constant, typically the drag coefficient, while the other is investigated. However, Mehta said this causes “inconsistencies or inaccuracies in our understanding of the mass density variability in the upper atmosphere or thermosphere.”
Mehta recently earned the Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Award from the National Science Foundation for his efforts in trying to alleviate this inconsistency and to develop a better model of thermosphere mass density.
“We will achieve this by not assuming the drag coefficient to be a constant but gaining statistical insights into the physical process that drives changes in drag coefficient, specifically the gas-surface interactions that describe the way energy and momentum are exchanged between the atmosphere and the satellite.” Mehta said. “The CAREER Award will alleviate this inconsistency through an innovative methodology that combines artificial intelligence and statistical estimation techniques. This is a very niche domain with only a handful of research groups around the world tackling the problem.”
Mehta leads the International Space Weather Action Teams initiative, a collaboration which grants Mehta $640,655 in funding over five years to advance this research project along with developing plans to “strengthen the space science curriculum at WVU.”
The Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources plans to expand outreach efforts across the state alongside a new graduate course in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
“Outreach efforts will establish learning modules and a hands-on build–a-satellite activity in collaboration with the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team,” Mehta said. “Educational and outreach activities will serve to excite and train the next-generation workforce in space sciences and artificial intelligence.”
Though the NSF’s CAREER program, junior faculty who demonstrate “outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of their mission organizations” are given support.
“Dr. Mehta’s cross-cutting research lies at the intersection of atmospheric sciences, space systems engineering and machine learning,” said Jason Gross, associate professor and interim chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and associate chair for research at the Statler College. “With the continued rapid increase of manmade satellites in low Earth orbit, his work toward improved orbital decay prediction becomes more important for the future of space environment sustainability with each passing day. His lab is at the forefront of this important field, and we are proud that he is on our faculty.”