Moriba Jah: "What MIT was for the Apollo space program, I’d like the UA to be for space domain awareness." (Photo: Pete Brown)
Moriba Jah: "What MIT was for the Apollo space program, I’d like the UA to be for space domain awareness." (Photo: Pete Brown)

Mars Navigator Joins UA to Launch Space Research Initiative

Moriba Jah will spearhead efforts in space object behavioral sciences, part of the Defense and Security Research Institute.
Jan. 11, 2016
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Moriba Jah received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, in 1999 and his master’s and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2001 and 2005.

He is a fellow in the American Astronautical Society, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Royal Astronomical Society, an associate fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a senior member and journal associated editor with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems). He has authored or co-authored more than 75 articles in astrodynamics, engineering and other professional peer-reviewed journals and is a popular speaker on the topic of spacecraft debris, which he calls "the unknown iceberg equivalent in space."

Jah travels frequently around the globe to advise national and international space policymakers. During his first week with the UA, he will be in Washington, D.C., meeting with White House space policy officials and acting as an emissary for UA space research. In February, he will be in Vienna, Austria, as a delegate to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

The UA ranks first in the nation for funding from NASA and regularly makes headlines for space research and discoveries.

UA researchers:

  • Built the HiRISE camera that revealed evidence of water on Mars.
  • Are spearheading the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will take samples from a distant asteroid and return them to Earth to be studied by UA researchers.
  • Have discovered, in the UA’s Spacewatch and Catalina Sky Survey programs, more than half of all known near-Earth objects.

In addition, the UA:

  • Runs the NSF’s $100 million CyVerse, which has engineered a cybersecure plant database infrastructure that will transform big data management in the space domain.
  • Is advancing data management, orbital navigation, artificial intelligence and supersonic flight capability to guide future space travel and exploration.
  • Owns or manages 20 telescopes, with the Giant Magellan Telescope and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope coming online in the next few years.

A spacecraft navigator for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Odyssey and other missions to Mars aims to make the University of Arizona a world center of research and discovery on how objects behave in outer space.

Moriba Jah, who has steered spacecraft to Mars for NASA, is joining the College of Engineering and the Office for Research & Discovery to direct a new UA initiative focused on space object behavioral sciences — the examination of objects in space, which includes locating satellites, studying the movement of objects in space and space traffic management. 

"We are so fortunate to have Dr. Jah joining us and spearheading our efforts in space object behavioral sciences," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UA senior vice president for research. "This initiative brings together our leadership in space systems, imaging technology and high-capacity cyberinfrastructure, and his world-recognized expertise and leadership will cement our position.

"The work in this area relates directly to the University’s Never Settle strategic plan, which calls for us to solve grand challenges as we team up boundlessly across disciplines, attract new resources and constantly think in new ways."

The new space object behavioral sciences initiative will be part of the University’s Defense and Security Research Institute.

Space object behavioral sciences addresses the causes for why and how objects behave in space. These inputs are not only due to the space environment, but also due to laws, policies, regulations and guidelines. This knowledge is critical to not only locating satellites and spacecraft debris, but also predicting their movement, preventing collisions and protecting space capabilities and services from loss, interruption and degradation.

"People work in different domains — land, maritime, airspace, cyberspace," Jah said. "Outer space is another domain that requires surveillance, traffic control and protection. We are creating a new harmonized field comprised of both new and old disciplines that need to be integrated in order to meet global needs. Space object behavioral sciences is this field. We shall become experts and thought leaders on how to gather a body of evidence on the behaviors of objects in outer space, identify threats or hazards, and present quantifiable findings to decision makers."

Jah, an aerospace engineer and astrodynamicist, will be based in the UA College of Engineering as an associate research scientist of engineering and associate research professor of engineering.

"We believe we have the right person in place to lead our space object behavioral sciences initiative," said Jeff Goldberg, dean of the UA College of Engineering. "Dr. Jah is incredibly well integrated into the national and international communities on this topic. I can’t think of a better person to lead this effort and put us on a path to pre-eminence in this field."

Surveyor of the Spheres

Jah has led research programs in space object behavior assessment and prediction for the Air Force Research Laboratory since 2007. He directed the Air Force’s Advanced Sciences and Technology Research Institute for Astronautics, or ASTRIA, on Maui, Hawaii, for eight years, and for the past two years has headed the space situational awareness program at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

As a spacecraft navigator (a title he shares with few people) for the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1999 to 2006, Jah charted courses for the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He also has participated in missions to the red planet for the European Space Agency, or ESA, and to asteroid Itokawa with the Japanese space agency, JAXA.

Jah has designed space data fusion and analysis software for the Air Force and private research laboratories to detect, track, identify and characterize objects in space, particularly satellites and their debris. In space object behavioral sciences, he is pioneering a new foundational and cross-cutting area of space domain awareness.

"My goal for the UA initiative is to lead a multidisciplinary team to grow and develop space object behavioral sciences, which is founded upon a rigorous marriage of engineering and physics with data science, analytics, and brings in space law and policy," he said. "I want the UA to be the go-to place for research, education and innovation in this area."

Synergies at the UA

Jah has been thinking about creating an academic research hub for some time.

"Through my years working in the space domain for the Air Force, it dawned on me that the U.S. has never achieved anything of significant technical brilliance without a strong academic partnership," he said. "I saw a great need for a galvanizing force in academia that could bring research scientists and engineers from many disciplines and public and private agencies together for a change for good."

He was courted by other universities, he said, but the UA was different.

"Other universities have invited me to join a single department," Jah said. "When I visited the UA earlier this year, I met researchers from many units, including aerospace engineering, computer sciences, astronomy, biological sciences, optical sciences and the Steward Observatory. The UA clearly recognized that great things happen only through partnerships and collaborations."

It was the first time Jah had met directly with a group of UA researchers, but not the first time he had collaborated with them — in an indirect, most unusual way.

Jah was the orbit determination lead for the interplanetary phase of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, carrying the UA-built HiRISE camera that recently captured stunning images of water on Mars.

Not surprisingly, he thinks big.

"What MIT was for the Apollo space program, I’d like the UA to be for space domain awareness, leveraging world-class expertise in space object behavioral science," he said.