With its recently launched research initiative focused on space object behavioral sciences, the University of Arizona is uniquely positioned at the forefront of a field that has implications for national security.
"We can't look at space as a peaceful sanctuary any longer," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, who spoke Thursday on the UA campus after a panel discussion moderated by U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a retired Air Force colonel who serves on House committees on armed services and homeland security.
"Space is becoming increasingly congested and contested," Teague said. "We need a good understanding of our operational environment in order to ensure our way of life."
The 90-minute panel discussion included Moriba Jah of the UA, Mica Endsley of Situational Awareness Technologies, Susan Lederer of NASA, Michael Bartone of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and Travis Blake of Lockheed Martin Corp. All brought extensive knowledge of space object behavioral sciences, or SOBS, and perspective on where the nascent field appears to be headed.
Jah, an aerospace engineer and astrodynamicist who has been a spacecraft navigator for NASA missions to Mars, is the newly appointed director of the UA initiative, which was announced in January and is part of the University's Defense and Security Research Institute. SOBS is the examination of objects in space, and it includes locating satellites, studying the movement of objects and managing space traffic.
Jah is based in the UA College of Engineering as an associate research scientist of engineering and associate research professor of engineering.
"More and more nations are getting involved in space these days," Jah said, mentioning Nigeria and Venezuela as two of the newer players. "Many do not have the capabilities of the United States. There's an educational component that's missing, like having a driver's license without driver education."
Jah said "a whole different physics is required for this," adding that he expects the U.S. and research-driven institutions such as the UA to take the lead in SOBS. However, he cautioned against a one-size-fits-all mindset.
"People all over the world don't behave the same way," he said, "so why would we expect behavior in space to be uniform? There are cultural and societal influences. We can do ourselves a great favor by understanding this."
The panel said agreed-upon "rules of the road" are needed in SOBS and said the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, whose 14 member agencies include NASA, is a start. But not all information is meant to be shared, even in a cooperative global environment.
"It's not that we're going to give away our national security secrets," Blake said. "But we have to find a way to walk into the new age of space exploration. The discussions are happening, and that's the first step."
Blake said much can be learned from the maritime domain, which also went through a phase of sporadic data and limited tracking ability. He said the space domain has lagged because of its sheer distance from Earth — "It's out there and we can't see it," he said — but added that this is changing rapidly because of technology and the advancement of commercialization.
Lederer noted that one spacecraft impacted by an object the size of a grapefruit can yield tens of thousands of pieces of debris.
"You have to have a feel for what you're looking at," she said. "In our office, the goal is to understand the population of orbital debris."
Teague, an Arizona native, said space power is at the heart of every U.S. military operation and that the UA's recognized expertise in space sciences never has been more important.
"Space security requires significant research and development," he said, "and that's why (the military) will continue to reach out to our national laboratories and to academia.
"The new research headed up by Dr. Jah is exactly the type of support we need. It's a team game. There is no shortage of issues, and (space is) valuable real estate."