UB awarded $5 million to lead Space University Research Initiative project

Space junk orbiting around earth - Conceptual of pollution around our planet (Texture map for 3d furnished by NASA - http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/).

Illustration showing a satellite monitoring debris in outer space with Earth nearby. 


John Crassidis and Moises Sudit are leading a new five-year, $5 million research program to improve the nation’s ability in tracking and monitoring spacecraft and other objects such as debris and meteoroids.

The award, one of two issued nationwide, is part of a newly established Space University Research Initiative program that was created to spur university research into new technologies for the Air Force and U.S. Space Force.

The grant’s principal investigator is John Crassidis, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Chair Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Moises Sudit, executive director of UB’s Center for Multisource Information Fusion and a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is co-principal investigator.

Sudit says there is data that can help improve space domain awareness, but first researchers must develop tools to better process and analyze that data. “We are drowning in data yet starved for useful information,” he says. “This project will allow us to find that actionable information for space decision-making that is otherwise buried among unusable noise.” 

The new grant also builds upon other aerospace grants UB has received in recent years. Last year, the Department of Energy awarded UB an $8.5 million grant to study hybrid rockets, which could provide a safer and less expensive way to explore space compared to conventional rockets, and both AFRL and NASA have awarded UB funding to build nanosatellites that track space debris.

Two students stand over a microscope in a lab setting.

UB Nanosatellite Laboratory students Chet Knorr (left) and Charles Dicus (right) are investigating space debris as part of the AFRL’s University Nanosatellite Program. 

Space domain awareness

Space domain awareness involves the detection, identification, tracking and cataloging of objects in space. It is of growing importance because certain areas of space, such as low-Earth orbit, are becoming increasingly crowded with satellites, debris, meteoroids and other objects that threaten existing and future space missions.

The Space Force is responsible for tracking objects in space, providing information to all satellite operators on potential collisions and maintaining awareness of threatening situations.

Because of the large distances involved — most Space Force satellites are 36,000 kilometers above the Earth, and the moon is 10 times further than that — a detailed understanding of the thousands of objects in orbit requires increasingly sophisticated methods to detect them in the first place, confidently identify them, predict their trajectories, and understand their characteristics and activities.

The focus of the grant is to develop cutting-edge techniques pertaining to sensors and measurement strategies, data fusion and autonomy, as well as improving algorithms to better predict the movements of objects in space.

“We tend to think of space as this vast, limitless area, but the reality is that it’s becoming increasingly small, especially near Earth,” Crassidis says. “We’re tracking more than 27,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth. These objects can threaten human and robotic space missions, satellites and other spacecraft.”

Partner institutions on the grant include Pennsylvania State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.