Aerospace professor says he wants to make UT ‘the Hogwarts for space’ at conference

Aria Jones

Traveling at 14 times the speed of a bullet, space debris from human-made objects can damage satellites, which support online maps, provide weather information, banking services and global internet access, Moriba Jah, aerospace engineering associate professor, said during his keynote speech at SpaceATX on Wednesday.

The inaugural SpaceATX event, partially sponsored by the University’s Center for Space Research, was held at the Blanton Museum of Art and included several speaker presentations focused on space exploration. Speakers included professors from UT-San Antonio and guests from private aerospace technology companies.

Jah, a former spacecraft navigator for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said a fleck of paint moving at the right speed could make operational satellites useless. He said the only way problems in space will be solved is by fusing multiple academic disciplines.

“I want to create the Hogwarts for space here at UT-Austin,” Jah said. “You can be a Ravenclaw, I can be Gryffindor, but all of us take the dark arts class. How cool is that?”

Event organizer Laura Lorek said Jah’s passionate speech made her feel encouraged to host the same event again next year.

“He opened my eyes to something I wasn’t even aware of,” Lorek said. “I always hear people talk about satellites burning up, so I didn’t think all this debris was floating around out there. I thought it just disintegrated.”

Jah said there are about 26,000 human-made objects in space being tracked by NASA. He said the objects range from the size of a cellphone to a school bus. Only 3,000 are operational, such as satellites, and everything else is garbage. He said this garbage reenters the atmosphere, usually falling into the ocean.

Jah said universities are well-suited to collaborate with private companies and people around the globe. He said having astronomers, environmental scientists, aerodynamicists and social scientists who understand human behavior can help solve the problem of space debris orbiting Earth.

Sharing information, developing behavioral norms and understanding different global cultural relationships with space are all sustainability practices Jah said he found in indigenous cultures and incorporated into his work researching orbital mechanics.

Autumn Taylor, public relations and advertising alumna, said she enjoyed Jah’s widespread approach to solving space issues and how ethics, sustainability and the human element were considered.

“Even though space is a void, our actions don’t exist in a void,” Taylor said.