Damage control: WVU researchers aim for the sky to track lethal space debris

West Virginia University researchers are looking to protect space — and elements of everyday life on Earth — from debris down to the size of paint flakes barreling through space at speeds of more than 15,000 miles per hour.

A team led by Piyush Mehta, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has received federal funding to detect, identify and track lethal non-trackable space debris. Currently, no technology exists to do that.

There are more than 100 million objects larger than one millimeter orbiting the Earth, yet less than 1% of debris that can cause mission-ending damage is currently tracked.

This debris can also ultimately create havoc among a society that relies on space assets for daily necessities such as banking, communications and GPS.

The research contract was awarded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, within the federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“It’s not about the size, it’s about the energy,” Mehta said about lethal non-trackable space debris. “It may be the size of a grain of salt but because it’s traveling so quickly, it might be comparable to a truck moving at 70 miles an hour. You don’t want to be in its path.”

Lethal non-trackable debris can emanate from a variety of sources, including the result of two objects colliding or an old satellite exploding, Mehta explained.

Mehta’s project is split into two phases: a base two-year phase to detect and characterize the debris, and a two-year option phase to develop technologies and algorithms to persistently track the debris. These objects can have repercussions for a wide range of communities, including intelligence, which is why IARPA stepped up the Space Debris Identification and Tracking program supporting Mehta’s efforts.

“The debris population is a rapidly growing threat to satellites in orbit now, future launches and the overall expansion of the space ecosystem,” Alexis Truitt, SINTRA program manager, said. “New, innovative solutions are necessary to protect our space investments.”

Joining Mehta on the project are Earl Scime, Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics and Astronomy in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, Stratagem, a software technology company, and InTrack Radar Technologies, a small business that supports space and missile defense missions.

“The primary objectives are to detect and track, and in the process, learn more about their physical attributes,” said Mehta, a Wayne and Kathy Richards Faculty Fellow. “Then we’ll develop new technologies and algorithms that will be tested and evaluated by government partners.”

Scime’s work will be based at the WVU Center for KINETIC Plasma Physics, of which he serves as director.

“My research group is very excited to provide the experimental component of this project,” Scime said. “Using laboratory measurements to reproduce the essential physics of what happens in space is what my group is all about.”

To help find answers for their research, the team will develop a digital twin — a representation of a real-world system or process — and work in a simulation environment conducive to testing and evaluation.

Mehta’s team is the only University-led group out of four performer teams to receive funding through this SINTRA program. He takes pride in that, in addition to addressing a complex challenge in space that could impact life on Earth.

“GPS is one of the most widely used technologies that relies on space assets,” he said. “Imagine driving to an unknown place with GPS and the signal goes out. Or signals from satellites used for time stamping banking transactions go away. That could cause chaos in our economic system. Or you want to plan a picnic but can’t get weather predictions for tomorrow. There are so many things that can be impacted by space debris.”

“Dr. Mehta and his team’s work represent what our College strives for — growing our research enterprise and contributing to the greater society,” Xingbo Liu, Statler College associate dean for research, said. “We thank IARPA for their trust and for funding this much-needed project.”

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