Moriba Jah, a University of Texas professor, selected as 2019 TED Fellow

Howard Yong

Moriba Jah has been selected as a 2019 TED Fellow. He will be the first aerospace engineer to ever speak at the global TED conference. 

Jah, an associate aerospace engineering professor, will join a class of 20 visionaries from around the world to deliver talks on a global stage in Vancouver this April.

“It’s the biggest achievement of my life,” Jah said. 

Since the program began in 2009. the TED Fellowship has grown into a network of influencers from more than 96 countries. Each year, thousands of people apply and 20 are selected to speak at the global TED conference. In the 2019 class of TED Fellows, 12 countries are represented and speakers will discuss topics ranging from journalism in the Middle East to advances in biotechnology.  

Jah’s research is part of his initiative to promote environmentalism in a resource shared by all of humanity: space. 

“Think of it as space sustainability,” Jah said. “What we’re doing to the oceans with plastics we’re doing to space, and I’m trying to prevent that runaway-train type of problem.”

Jah and his team at UT have constructed AstriaGraph, the first knowledge graph, or visual searchable database, for tracking space debris orbiting the Earth.

AstriaGraph draws data from multiple sources of information, but the largest source is the U.S. Strategic Command, a section of the U.S. Department of Defense that is responsible for nuclear deterance, space and cybersecurity, Jah said. Others include amateur telescopes, industry contributors and commercial research laboratories.

Jah’s ultimate objective is to find techniques for minimizing collisions of man-made material and pollution around the Earth’s orbit.

“We’d like to present a body of evidence to people at the United Nations or even our own government saying, ‘If you want to pass space laws, policies and regulations, they should be scientifically informed,’” Jah said. “So here’s the science, rate of growth and risks.”

Jah’s influence isn’t just on the international stage — he’s also a prominent leader and researcher on campus, his students said. 

“He’s always traveling to conferences, hosting seminars, spreading word on what we do here … and bringing problems and ideas back to inspire us,” said Justin Spurbeck, a second-year aerospace engineering graduate student. 

Shiva Iyer, another second-year aerospace engineering graduate student, worked very closely with Jah on constructing AstriaGraph. 

“Jah is very passionate and energetic … He’s given me free reign to architect projects in kind of any way,” Iyer said. “He has a good idea of what he wants from the final product but lets me put my personality into the project without micromanaging.”