UT welcomes NASA navigator to faculty

Amanda Kaeni

Former NASA navigator Moriba Jah’s new job has placed him firmly in UT’s orbit. 

Jah will join the aerospace department as an associate professor and plans to conduct research about the behavior of objects in space. Jah said he plans to use physics-based models and data from radars and telescopes to measure the size, shape and material properties of objects in space. 

Jah said that his research will help prevent degradation or loss of critical spacecrafts such as GPS, bank routing systems and weather satellites.

“Planet Earth has a growing space traffic problem,” Jah said. “The U.S. Department of Defense has developed and maintained a catalogue of about 22,000 objects the size of a softball or larger. Out of those 22,000 objects, roughly about 1,200 of those work, and the rest is space garbage. There’s no way to track everything and no feasible way to clean it up.”

After getting his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Jah worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, as a spacecraft navigator for various Mars missions. He later worked for the Air Force research laboratory and at the University of Arizona before coming to UT.

Jah said that his work at JPL has impacted him the most because of the lessons he learned there.

“The world class staff (at JPL) cut my teeth on really understanding the things that influence the motion of objects (in space),” Jah said. “I also learned the value of data, and (why) you don’t throw data away, even noisy data.” 

At UT, Jah plans to establish ASTRIA, or Advanced Sciences Technology Research In Astronautics, a program focused on addressing the problem of space traffic and debris mitigation. Jah said he hopes to both help countries write informed policies that preserve the space environment and help companies thrive in the commercial sector of space exploration.

“I think UT has a sweet spot for me because the aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics department is multidisciplinary in itself,” Jah said.

Jah also works with the Institute for Computer Engineering and Sciences and said he admires the computational capabilities at the Texas Advanced Computing Center. He said that interdisciplinary collaborations are required to solving the problems in space. 

Josefina Salazar, an aerospace engineering freshman, said adding Jah to the aerospace engineering faculty provides students an opportunity to get involved with Jah’s unique and interesting research.

“I think his research has a lot of direct impact on what we study and where we’re headed in the future as far as space exploration,” Salazar said.