Update on Research in Space Debris & Law

Since Spring 2014, I have had the privilege of conducting an extensive independent study under the guidance of NASA astronaut and Columbia Professor Mike Massimino, whose support has been unmatched. I was invited to present my research at Columbia’s 2014 Undergraduate Research Symposium, Family Weekend Research Showcase, and Egleston Scholars Seminar. It was wonderful to share my findings with these passionate and intellectually-engaged audiences. Space debris and space law are issues critical to our time but sadly remain outside public and academic thought, so any chance to spread awareness in settings like these is invaluable.

I also had the tremendous honor of being profiled on this research and my other work for the biannual Columbia Engineering Magazine in its “Meet the Future” feature for Columbia  Engineering’s 150th Anniversary. The writers were fantastic — we talked engineering, applied physics, law, social justice, and creative writing. See the full spread, with background shots of my work from the Columbia Robotics Lab. I strongly recommend reading the other profiles as well. These engineering powerhouses will blow away and inspire you in one fell swoop.

Columbia Engineering has posted pictures and abstracts from the Undergrad Research Symposium. You can view my abstract below.

Presenting at the Columbia 2014 Undergrad Research Symposium

“Space Debris: Observation, Mitigation, Remediation, and their Legal Factors”

In 2012, a World Economic Forum panel concluded that “a day without satellites” would spell global economic disaster – GPS, communications, security, environmental data, and more are all provided via spacecraft in orbit. It might seem difficult to comprehend an apocalypse not instigated by catastrophe on the surface of the planet Earth, but, without proper protection and management of space operations, a collapse of some kind would be disastrous. Man-made space debris is arguably the most significant obstacle to the security of space, as its potential to create a “cascade effect” of collisions in orbit has reached a point of no return. Actions must be taken – but they require significant efforts in both engineering and policy.

This study asks: What is the state of debris observation (monitoring debris), mitigation (pre-launch prevention of debris creation), and remediation (removal of existing debris) efforts today? What are its deficiencies? What future methods will resolve these deficiencies? Furthermore, what is the efficacy of legal and political factors related to these debris issues? How can law/policy allow the engineering solutions to become real-world possibilities?

Through an extensive study of the academic literature in the field, the study seeks to synthesize the state of debris resolution efforts today, from both an engineering and a legal/policy point of view. The study finds that, while states and corporations across the globe have pioneered several research projects, theoretical and otherwise, in methods of debris mitigation and remediation, efforts on the whole are sparse and mostly theoretical, while domestic and international efforts in law and policy remain similarly thin and abstract. This study concludes by proposing several directions for engineers and policymakers in order to alleviate these issues.

Currently, I am continuing this line of research with a focus on “next steps” toward bringing the needed legal/policy solutions for space debris toward practical realities. See more on the Research page.

In other news, I am now on Twitter! You can follow me @hdernity.

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