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Recode Decode at TED: Space environmentalist Moriba Jah wants to know how much “junk” is in Earth’s orbit

Plus: Why space will be a “trillion-dollar business.”

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Astronomer and space environmentalist Moriba Jah.
Astronomer and space environmentalist Moriba Jah, who studies “space junk.”
Moriba Jah / CC BY-SA 4.0

On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Kara passed the mic to her executive producer Erica Anderson, who recently attended the 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada. On the new podcast, you’ll hear four interviews with TED Fellows, up-and-coming innovators in science and technology who give talks about their work on the conference’s first day.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of the second of those four interviews: In it, Erica talks to astronomer Moriba Jah, a self-described “space environmentalist” who studies the old satellites and other debris floating in orbit, also known as “space junk.” At the conference, he also explained why space could be a “trillion-dollar business” — and not just because of people going up, but also because of the private data that could be gathered from cameras pointed back down at the Earth.

“Knowing what people do and how they move and how they interact as pervasive and as persistent as possible, that’s a big business,” Jah said. “So now if you tie the Internet of Things on the ground with what is in orbit, that’s like a mega set of information. I’ll put it this way, people are very surprised with the level of knowledge that a company like Google might have. If they start incorporating space-based information and linking that with stuff going on the ground, that’s going to blow people’s minds, big time.”

You can hear all four interviews right now on Recode Decode, which you’ll find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or, just listen using the embedded audio player below.


Erica Anderson: Moriba, welcome to Recode Decode.

Moriba Jah: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure and honor to be here.

So let’s start. What is space junk?

Yeah, so basically since we’ve been putting up satellites — Sputnik all the way to the current day — most of what we put up there doesn’t come back. It dies, it ages, it falls apart. Every once in a while, two things collide with each other or something will blow up or somebody will blow something up. And then these things become many more pieces that are also mostly never coming back. And so the population is just growing, and it grows on its own, and it grows because we’re launching stuff and more and more countries are getting involved in space, and they want to put more stuff on orbit.

So currently there’s a hypothesis, about half a million objects ranging in size from a speck of paint all the way to a school bus that could harm any services and capabilities we depend upon, like global positioning system, banking, weather warnings, agriculture, TV communications, and soon even the internet. Because that’s the new thing. I mean, SpaceX and Amazon, now they all want to rush to send thousands of satellites up there to provide global internet.

How did you learn about this issue? How did you learn about the issue of space junk and the need for solutions?

My career started off at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. I was a spacecraft navigator navigating several missions to Mars and that sort of stuff. But then I stumbled upon the work that the Air Force Research Laboratory was doing. And from a defense perspective, one of the questions is “debris or not debris.” That is the question.

Nice. So all right. Now that we understand, I think we have a baseline of space junk. Tell me, what’s the big idea? What are you here at TED talking about?

Yeah. So one of the things that’s very unfortunate is that there isn’t a consistent space traffic map around earth’s orbit. If you ask the US government, “Oh, well what do you think is up there?” and where it’s at, you’ll get an answer. If you asked the Russian government, you’ll get an answer. And they’re different. If you asked the Chinese, you’ll get a different answer. Ask five people the question, you’ll get 10 different answers, sort of thing.

And so one of the things that I’m trying to do is I ask people this question, “How do you know that you have the world’s most accurate clock?” And the way that you know is because you have hundreds of them. And that’s how time has actually standardized across the globe. You have hundreds of atomic clocks that predict what the time is and then they kind of crowdsource that and figure out what the actual time is.

In order to get through really what’s up there and where it’s going and what can it do, the idea is to crowdsource multiple sources of independent information and see where does it seem to be consistent and where is it inconsistent, and do it in such a way that no single entity can dominate or bias what that answer is. Because some people are very happy with having this sort of mystery cloak around space, right? They can just do whatever because it’s the Wild West up there. It’s like a gold rush because people see, “Oh, wow, there are trillions of dollars to be made with space-based services. There are no space traffic rules. It’s like the Wild West. I’m just going to go up there and make my claim and make my money and get out.” And I’m like, “Ahh, hold on a second. Let’s think about long-term sustainability of that environment.” I want to make sure nothing hides. That’s my goal: to make space transparent and predictable.

So you want to find the common answer with the metaphor of a clock.

Exactly. What is the common answer? That’s right.

You showed a chart, a visual in your presentation that had the information from the United States versus the information from Russia about the kind of the rate of space junk out there. And it was totally different. So you’ve identified this challenge is kind of different sources of truth, if you will.

Exactly. Opinions.

Opinions. So this is the idea. So your idea is to create really like space traffic information, a way to understand a common source of what’s happening in space. What was the inspiration for this?

Basically, I worked for the Air Force Research Laboratory for a decade. I’ve seen escalatory language in the news, meaning the US is saying, “Well, China has these capabilities, and we need to prepare for a war in space.” And China is saying one thing and Russia is saying the other. And before anybody presses some weird red button, I would like to say, “Hold off, let’s really understand what’s going on.”

Because people ... In the absence of knowledge, people become very paranoid. And so I want to provide a basis of scientific evidence so that we can make informed decisions and not just act in ignorance. Because right now there’s just a lot of ignorance. And I’ve got to tell you, people are very concerned about intent. “Oh, well, when this satellite comes close to mine, what’s their intent? Do they just not know they’re that close or are they trying to do something to me?” And the more people send satellites in space, that’s going to be a growing concern.

So how do you execute this?

So right now, at the University of Texas at Austin, there’s this thing called the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which is where Astra Graph lives, autonomously we’re grabbing several sources of information, bringing that into this graph database. And then when you go to the website, it visualizes all these things.

So right now, we’re in the final stages of developing an API that would let people interact with the graph database. I want to open this up to amateur telescope operators, like people from all over the globe. “Hey, deposit your evidence in this common bucket.” And then we’re going to have algorithms that are going to try to sort this stuff out to come up with this sort of common knowledge and make it globally accessible. That’s the thing, is that anybody can have access to this stuff for safety and sustainability.

So I was just going to ask, who would use this? Who would use this database?

Let me give you an example. You have African countries that are developing their own kind of space agencies and that sort of stuff. Nigeria has a space agency. They only have a few satellites. Guess what? Nigeria doesn’t have a global network of sensors to track stuff in their orbital neighborhood. And so it’s like, “How do the Nigerians stay safe? How do they know when to get out of the way if something is going to come towards them?” And so this basic service would be to facilitate people who just don’t have all this capability to know where everything is at all the time. But they’re space operators. And so if they’re on the highway, it would be nice to remove the blindfold and let them see the traffic that’s around them.

And really to level the playing field to make this kind of information accessible.

Exactly.

Yeah. I want to jump back to something you said that’s fascinating. You said that the future of space is a trillion-dollar business. What are the types of things you’ve seen happen in the space exploration area that have to do with building new businesses up there? Because we actually can’t see it. We hear about these ideas of what people are doing. But from your perspective, what are those big kind of new business ideas that are happening?

Right. So I would say, by and large, there are two dominating camps. One of them is communications, and most of the money made in space is based on communications. Now with the thought of having internet anywhere on the planet, 24/7, that’s a big business. I mean, like I said, Elon Musk with SpaceX, Bezos with [Blue Origin], they want to put stuff up there, and that’s just the US. I mean, European companies have their own ideas. China has their own ideas for this stuff. So that’s definitely a big market place.

The other dominant camp is the remote sensing looking down. So I mentioned things with cameras looking to the surface of the earth. I said agriculture, disaster relief. But in general, human-based activity monitoring, that’s a big deal. Everything from government intelligence agencies that want to track motion of certain people around the planet, to people that might say, “Hey, I want to see what kind of cars are being driven in this parking lot on what days of the week so I can figure out how to strategize and market.” Knowing what people do and how they move and how they interact as pervasive and as persistent as possible, that’s a big business.

So now if you tie the Internet of Things on the ground with what is in orbit, that’s like a mega set of information. I’ll put it this way, people are very surprised with the level of knowledge that a company like Google might have. If they start incorporating space-based information and linking that with stuff going on the ground, that’s going to blow people’s minds, big time.

Let me give you another example. Let’s say country A has all these space-based capabilities looking down, and they go to have a conversation with country B about, I don’t know, mining. Country B doesn’t have all these assets. When country A goes to talk to country B and says, “Well, so what’s the price of the gold or this and that in your country?” Country B can’t just say whatever they want because country A can say, “You know what? I actually know the answer because I see how much dirt you’re actually moving on a daily basis and based on where your mines are located and how many trucks I see, that means that your yield is only this percent.” So it completely gives an advantage to certain groups or entities if they have this knowledge over other people in just doing regular business.

Wow.

Big time.

So space surveillance.

Exactly.

Yeah.

And if you can sell that on tap, that is a lot of money to be made there.

So it’s almost like what you’re doing in terms of like your ... it’s about space junk, but you want to understand, and you want to make it transparent, you want to kind of lift the veil a bit on what’s happening, so that it’s almost like an ethical pursuit, in some sense.

In some sense, yes.

Yeah. So back to the space junk, should there be junkyards up in space? And this is a silly question, but once you monitor it and understand it, what do you do with it? Do they just exist?

Right. So it turns out that there actually is a junkyard in space.

A junkyard. Yeah.

Yeah, yeah. There is one, and it’s called the GEO Graveyard. So the geostationary space highway, if you will, is located about 36,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. And it’s where you put a satellite such that the time it takes a satellite to go once around in its orbit is equivalent to an Earth day. So that helps you point your dish at a certain region in the sky and you’ll always get a signal. The GEO Graveyard is about 300 kilometers above GEO. And we’ve been putting things there for a long time. I can tell you that it’s bad news because things in the graveyard are actually coming back to the highway sooner than people predicted. So we actually have zombies. Yeah, zombie objects.

Define zombie objects.

So basically you put something up there, you think it’s dead and it can’t do any harm. And this dead thing all of a sudden breaks up and produces kids after death. And these kids now come in ...

This is terrifying.

I know!

What?

Right?

Yeah.

Yeah. So we see evidence of that whole thing, and it’s just not so good. So here’s the thing: If I can come up with a science that monitors this stuff, can quantify the birth and death processes of all these things, if I can develop a taxonomy to classify things and say these species of these things in this region behave this way versus that way, then we can start talking about: How do you mitigate this stuff? How do you slow down the rate of this stuff? How do you ... but you can’t get there unless you have that kind of foundational body of knowledge.

Right. More specific information and ...

That’s right.

Wow. There’s so much to think about Moriba, my mind is blown. So last question, what do you hope to accomplish?

What I want to do is I want to, A, raise awareness. I really, really want for space to be safe, secure, and sustainable long term. And my pathway to get there is by trying to make space transparent and predictable. And I can’t get to transparency and predictability without information from as many different sources as possible. And so I just want to crowdsource the living ___ out of all this information, make it automated, and make it publicly and globally accessible, so that nothing hides. I want nothing to hide in space.

Wow. All right. Cool. Thank you so much for coming on Recode Decode.

Thank you for having me. Thank you.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.