UB Researcher Recipient of AAIA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award

While NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is exploring a neighboring planet, a University at Buffalo researcher has been awarded prestigious national recognition for developing a computer model used for outer space.  The programming is used to help track man made space debris, a growing problem in this 21st Century solar system full of—well—curiosity.

John Crassidis has created a system for tracking high-Earth orbit man made space material.  It is one of the first methods used to be able to reliably follow the particles, which put communications and weather satellites at a high risk of being damaged by collision.

For his accomplishment and dedication to continuing his work, Crassidis is recipient of the 2012 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Mechanics and Control of Flight Award.  The award, which includes a medal, certificate of citation and a rosette pin, recognizes his work on space debris and other issues.

“It’s certainly an honor,” said Crassidis, who admits that, “We don’t know what those objects look like.”  But, in time, the University at Buffalo lab will know exactly what they look like and where they are going.  Crassidis’ computer programming has been achieving positive results and he expects to discover the properties soon by plotting the brightness of debris objects as they travel.

The drive to explore, innovate and achieve has left scientists with a growing problem: space junk.  Each satellite, rocket and other man made vehicle sent beyond our atmosphere leaves behind a trail of broken parts and chipped paint.  These particles join disfunct satellites and human-occupied aircraft in low-Earth orbit to make a dangerous game of avoidance.  If hit with even a fleck of paint, a space shuttle can sustain costly damage.  And a hole merely .4 inches wide in the International Space Station’s body could cause an implosion, ending years of progress and possibly lives.

Crassidis cites the urgent need for addressing the issue in our generation.  He says, “If we don’t do something soon, low-Earth orbit will be just useless.”  There are a few ways to solve the problem: Giant nets to capture the junk; space lasers to shoot it down; or simply tracking the material.  At this point in time, it seems like tracking makes the most sense.

To dodge the space junk caused by man’s exhibitions into the new frontier, NASA has been able to track about 22,000 pieces in low-Earth orbit by using space-based surveillance systems and telescopes.  However, the problem has expanded to high-Earth orbit, making the current monitoring systems incapable of tracking the pieces.  This is where Crassidis’ work comes in handy.

Once a shuttle is notified of space debris in its path, it simply fires a booster to get out of the way.  But the notification in this process is crucial.  Houston is not able to radio out the problem without knowledge of location.  Crassidis’ method supplies that knowledge and a loss of life, exploration and investment is avoided—thus, continuing our curiosity.

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Maxwell Morgan

Author: Maxwell Morgan

Maxwell is the Coordinator of Digital Engagement for the State University of New York.

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