Junking orbital junk? The mind behind ASTRIAGraph database project hopes to 'make space transparent'

Monitoring UN's Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space among use cases

Forty-five years after the United States entered into the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space, one of its citizens has some doubts about the way it's working out.

The convention, administered by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), might not be capturing all the information it should do about human-made objects escaping from the Earth's atmosphere, Professor Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Register.

"The treaty says countries should register your object as soon as practicable and some countries interpret that as registering five years after the thing has been launched, and that makes no sense," Professor Jah said.

Jah, who is also director of computational astronautical science and technologies at the Oden Institute, leads a project to help to try to tackle the problem. ASTRIAGraph is designed to track space objects, both functioning hardware and abandoned junk. It is built around the Neo4j graph database to connect disparate sources of data detailing the location and origins of human-made items in space.

The UN organisation approached ASTRIAGraph for help in monitoring its convention. "UNOOSA said, 'We have a treaty, a convention on registering your space object that you've launched in the space. We have no idea how people have interpreted and implemented this treaty'," Jah said.

ASTRIAGraph came up with a rating system to describe nations' compliance with the UN treaty. "It was five stars, four stars and so forth. The results are very eye-opening," he said.

Jah began working with Neo4j in 2017 to try to become the "Rosetta Stone" for objects in space. ASTRIAGraph brings together data from the US Space Command Satellite Catalog, the Russian JSC Vimpel catalogue, GPS measurements from Planet Lab satellites, the predicted trajectories from the SpaceX Starlink constellation, Maxar Technologies, amateur telescope community CSAT, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the European Space Agency.

Jah's interest in graph databases dates back to his time in the US Airforce, where he served as director at the Advanced Sciences & Technology Research Institute for Astronautics (ASTRIA) between 2007 and 2016.

"I wanted to develop ASTRIAGraph there, but I was unable to do so for a variety of reasons: sensitivities with data and other stuff," Jah said. "The way people were doing it was using relational databases. To me, it was not going to scale for big data problems. I needed to find a way to develop schema for different sources of information in heterogeneous data in a way that facilitates discovery from the mutual information content of this aggregated data set and that's where as the idea for ASTRIAGraph was born."

Work began with the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The Resource Description Framework and other semantic web technologies wouldn't scale so Jah approached database outfit Neo4j, which contributed to the project.

The ASTRIAGraph project consists of Jah, plus four staff from the Texas Advanced Computing Center, seven grad students and research associates, and undergrad volunteers who give up part of their time to the project. IBM also contributes, running a showcase for the data service called Arcade.

Other than monitoring UNOOSA's registration system, ASTRIAGraph provides a streaming service that predicts conjunctions, or approaches between objects. It has its own orbit determination capability that queries Neo4j and applies advanced estimation techniques to interpret object trajectories and provide formal uncertainties. It also provides data for the astronomy community to help predict when light pollution from anthropogenic space objects might be corrupting their images.

As space is opening up to the private sector and more nations are capable of launching objects into space, Jah has a vision that everyone should know what everybody else is doing.

"I'm here to make space transparent: nothing hides in space," he said. "I want everybody to know where everything is all the time. And I want people's behaviours, and the intended and unintended consequences of their actions to also be very transparent. And I want to facilitate scientifically informed policy in law."

ASTRIAGraph might just go some way to providing the data to make this vision a reality. You can take a look here. ®

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