Future trillion-dollar ‘space economy’ threatened by debris, says WVU researcher | Today


Piyush Mehta has won the prestigious CAREER award for his research on upper atmosphere variability
(WVU Photo/Paige Nesbit)

The space economy is on track to be valued at a trillion dollars by the end of 2030, according to Piyush Mehta, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University. Yet space assets – equipment placed in space such as navigation, weather and communications satellites that serve our society daily – are at risk from space debris.

According to NASA, millions of pieces of space junk are estimated to orbit Earth. Much of this debris as well as active satellites resides in the low Earth orbit region, at altitudes between 200 and 1000 km.

“In low Earth orbit, our ability to protect these space assets depends on modeling the aerodynamic forces acting on the satellites, in particular satellite drag. The drag force acting on a satellite is affected by various physical parameters, however, the most crucial and uncertain are drag coefficient and mass density,” Mehta said.

Mehta explained that due to the interdependence of the two parameters, one of them is kept constant, usually the drag coefficient, while the other is studied. However, Mehta said this causes inconsistencies or inaccuracies in our understanding of mass density variability in the upper atmosphere or thermosphere.

Recently, Mehta won the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award for bridging this inconsistency and developing a state-of-the-art model of thermosphere mass density, which will enhance understanding, modeling, and prediction. researchers. the variability of the upper atmosphere.

“We will achieve this by not assuming the drag coefficient to be a constant, but by gaining statistical information about the physical process that drives changes in the drag coefficient, specifically the gas-surface interactions that describe how the energy and momentum are exchanged between the atmosphere and the Satellite.” said Mehta. “The CAREER Award will mitigate this inconsistency through an innovative methodology that combines artificial intelligence and statistical estimation techniques. This is a niche area with only a handful of research groups around the world tackling the problem.

Mehta is leading a collaborative effort among some of these groups on satellite drag coefficient modeling as part of the International Space Weather Action Teams initiative.

Through this highly competitive award, Mehta will receive funding of $640,655 over five years to advance this research project, while developing plans to strengthen the space science program at WVU.

The Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources plans to develop a new graduate course, Space Weather and Space Systems, to be offered annually in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Along with the new course, the College plans to expand its outreach efforts through hands-on activities for K-12 schools across the state.

“Outreach efforts will establish learning modules and a hands-on satellite building activity in conjunction with the West Virginia Scientific Public Outreach Team,” Mehta said. “The educational and outreach activities will serve to excite and train the next generation workforce in space science and artificial intelligence.”

NSF’s CAREER program supports young faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-researchers through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of their mission organizations.

“Dr. Mehta’s cross-cutting research sits at the intersection of atmospheric science, space systems engineering, and machine learning,” said Jason Gross, Associate Professor and Acting Director of Engineering Mechanics and Aerospace, and Associate Director for Research at Statler College.” With the rapid and continuing increase in artificial satellites in low Earth orbit, his work to improve the prediction of orbital decay becomes more important every day for the future. the sustainability of the space environment. His lab is at the forefront of this important field and we are proud to have him on our faculty.



Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304-293-4135; [email protected]

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