Florida Tech Awarded $150,000 STTR Grant from Small Business Association
BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, Florida – More than 35,000 pieces of orbital debris, some would call space junk, are floating around the Earth. A new small business technology transfer grant involving a Florida Tech researcher will help clear the space a little.
Madhur Tiwari, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and director of The Autonomy Lab, a New Hampshire-based innovator in the design and development of cryogenic components and systems, was awarded a $150,000 STTR grant in February from the Small Business Association.
In the grant, they will reconstruct 3D models of space debris using machine learning as part of the Space Domain Awareness (SDA) initiative. SDA stands for the ability to detect, track, detect and identify objects in space.
The research will also look at ways to efficiently capture the data on the debris.
“Currently, 3D-modeling of space debris (modeling) requires underground operations, which increases the dependence of the spacecraft on ground support, thus making the process difficult, unreliable and slow,” said Tiwari.
“Using machine learning methods, we are building algorithms that will enable space autonomy by enabling camera-enabled spacecraft to essentially build 3D models on their own without ground support.”
The debris problem is a growing issue. According to NASA, orbital debris includes defunct spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related debris, and fragmented debris.
In the year A 2022 study in Nature Astronomy found that more than 70 percent of more than 1,500 rocket bodies have entered the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner over the past three decades.
Although some objects are the size of a softball, they travel at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, enough to damage even a small piece of a satellite or spacecraft.
The spacecraft’s windows have been replaced by paint chips, and according to NASA, millimeter-sized orbital debris represents the greatest mission-ending risk for most robotic rovers in low-Earth orbit.
To combat some of this debris, there are now active debris removal plans, known as ADR, that reduce Earth’s orbit by vaporizing small objects using radiation, moving objects, and reducing debris using lasers.
“Currently, a lot of efforts are being made to track space debris using ground-based and space-based systems,” Tiwari said.
“But there is still an enormous amount of unexamined debris.”
This grant is a continuation of Tiwari’s comprehensive space debris disposal research.
Last year, Florida Tech and Tiwari won a $250,000 contract to support a waste cleanup project known as Orbital Prime.
While the research is in its early stages, the immediate goal is to create algorithms that will allow the spacecraft to use machine learning to create 3D models using onboard cameras.
“We are trying to make the process more independent for future missions to support the development of the space sector by supporting the communication between spacecraft and ground control,” he said.
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