Richard Linares (PhD ’14, MS ’10, BS ’09) has had space debris on his mind for nearly a decade: as a student working with mechanical and aerospace engineering professor John Crassidis; as an employee protecting military satellites at CUBRC; as a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota (where he works now); and most recently, as a recipient of the U.S. Air Force’s prestigious 2018 Young Investigator Research Program (YIP) award.
At UB, Linares was a member of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). In 2011, he was also the first student principal investigator for Crassidis’s GLADOS (GLint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite) team—a nanosatellite project that gathers data on space debris.
Over the years, Linares’ work has continued to seek solutions to the “space junk” problem. He describes the current issue concerning the transformation of space’s infrastructure, namely by commercial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin that want to increase our access to space—adding to the number of launches and satellites, i.e. space debris. The problem is, the orbits these launches want to use are already chock full of debris that needs to be tracked.
“People once had the perception that space is big and that leaving debris up there wasn’t an issue,” he says. “But now we know that it is.”
Linares’ YIP research topic, “Optimal Sensor Tasking through Deep Reinforcement Learning for Space Situational Awareness,” seeks to find solutions. His goal is to design an intelligent system for measuring the location of the thousands of manmade objects in space. The system would operate autonomously, observing satellites and space debris and maintaining knowledge with minimal human intervention.
“Rich was truly an exceptional and gifted scholar during his time at UB. He immerses himself into any particular topic, quickly grasping the nuances of its theoretical and applied aspects to develop new and groundbreaking research results. We're all very proud of his stellar accomplishments,” said Crassidis, Samuel P. Capen Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Director of the Center for Multisource Information Fusion.
A limitation that Linares hopes to improve upon is that the current system is optimal for a very short horizon (meaning, just a few hours). In the future, Linares would like a system that can be optimal for much longer horizons (several hours or even days). He also mentions sub-problems within these major problems, including how to design around sensor limitations to create a network that can follow the entire catalog of objects in space.
Linares’ ultimate goal, he says, “Is to better understand space’s environment, including debris, so we can protect space for future generations.”
The $450,000 YIP grant he received will certainly help advance his mission.