In February, the Small Business Association granted the $150,000 STTR grant to Madhur Tiwari, assistant professor of aeronautical engineering and director of The Autonomy Lab, and Creare, a New Hampshire-based innovation in the design and development of cryogenic components and systems.
Under the award, they will use machine learning to recreate 3D models of space debris as part of Space Domain Awareness (SDA) activities. SDA refers to the capacity to detect, track, identify, and classify space objects.
The team will also investigate techniques to model debris information more efficiently.
“Today, 3D modeling of space debris involves ground-in-loop procedures, which increases the spacecraft’s dependence on the ground assistance, making the process complex, unreliable, and sluggish,” stated Tiwari.
“We are developing algorithms based on machine learning techniques so that spacecraft equipped with cameras may create 3D models autonomously, therefore providing space autonomy.”
The debris issue is a major concern. According to NASA, orbital debris consists of inoperative spacecraft, abandoned stages of launch vehicles, mission-related junk, and fragmentation debris.
A research published in Nature Astronomy in 2022 revealed that over 1,500 rocket corpses had reentered the atmosphere over the preceding three decades, with over 70 percent of these being uncontrolled reentries.
Although though some of the particles are barely larger than a baseball, they fly at speeds of up to 17,500 miles per hour, fast enough for even a small fragment to do damage to a satellite or spacecraft.
Damage caused by paint flecks necessitated the replacement of space shuttle windows, and according to NASA, millimeter-sized orbital debris poses the greatest mission-ending risk to most robotic spacecraft operating in low Earth orbit.
To tackle some of these current debris problems, there are active debris removal programs, sometimes known as ADR, that involve dissolving tiny particles with radiation, moving objects with propulsion, and decelerating debris in near-Earth orbit using lasers.
“Present efforts are focused on tracking space debris with ground- and space-based technologies,” added Tiwari.
Yet, a significant amount of untracked debris still persists.
This award continues Tiwari’s broad study on space debris clearance.
Last year, Florida Tech and Tiwari were awarded a $250,000 contract by the U.S. Space Force to support the Orbital Prime debris clearance mission.
While research is in its infancy, the immediate objective is to develop machine learning-based algorithms that enable spacecraft to construct 3D models of space junk using onboard cameras.
“By depending less on communication between the spacecraft and earth ground control, we want to make the process more autonomous for future missions in order to assist the expansion of the space industry,” Tiwari said.