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Momentum Member Spotlight ? June 2016
Momentum Member Spotlight – June 2016
AIAA Congratulates Dr. Moriba Jah
By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications
Backtracking from its May excursion to California, the spotlight beam turned back east, taking a short jaunt to fall on Cedar Crest, New Mexico, illuminating Dr. Moriba Jah, director of Space Object Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Jah, an AIAA Associate Fellow and an astrodynamicist, started his career as an orbital analyst at Microcosm, Inc. from 1997 to 1999 before moving to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. While at JPL from 1999 to 2006, Jah served as a radiometric navigation engineer on a series of robotic interplanetary missions, including the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Express, giving him the opportunity to work with engineers from the European Space Agency; Mars Exploration Rovers, Hayabusa (working with engineers from Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency); and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Jah left JPL in 2006 to take a position as senior scientist at Oceanit Laboratories, Inc., where he “provided expert guidance on Kalman Filter design, estimated space object trajectories, and developed orbit determination algorithms for Space Situational Awareness.”
Jah left Oceanit Laboratories in 2007 to become director of the Advanced Sciences and Technology Research Institute for Astronautics at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), where he was largely responsible for “leading teams of Astrodynamicists in the areas of space object detection, tracking, identification, and characterization.” While at AFRL, Jah also held the positions of mission lead in space situational awareness, and as a technical advisor to the AFRL’s Satellite Guidance, Navigation, and Control Program. Jah’s last position at AFRL was as principal investigator, a role in which he provided technical direction and leadership on a variety of space domain awareness sciences and technologies for the Directed Energy and Space Vehicles Directorates. Jah left AFRL in 2016 to begin his role at the University of Arizona.
In his new role at the University of Arizona Jah is responsible for directing a university-wide initiative bringing together 5 colleges and 11 departments and focusing these talents and resources on the rigorous and comprehensive assessment, quantification, and prediction of space object behavior.
Dr. Jah is a Fellow of the American Astronautical Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, The International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, and the AFRL. Jah is a Senior Member of IEEE. He is also an observer of the Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group. Among his many honors are a 2016 University of Colorado Distinguished Alumni Award; a 2013 AFRL/RV Technology Transfer Award/Transition Achievement Award; a 2013 AFRL International Award; a 2009 NASA Group Achievement Award; a 2007 NASA Space Act Award; a 2005 NASA Group Achievement Award; a 2001 NASA Group Achievement Award; and an Aviation Week & Space Technology Laurel Award.
When asked if anyone had inspired him on his path to his current career, Jah named two people. He noted that “I studied Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Prescott, Arizona, where I met Professor Ron Madler who inspired me to get into the field of astrodynamics.” He continued, “I was able to get into the Arizona Space Grant Program which provided me the opportunity to get into satellite trajectory research early on.” The second source of inspiration was the late Professor George H. Born. Jah explained: “After graduating from ERAU with a B.S., I went on to the University of Colorado at Boulder to get my graduate education in Astrodynamics at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research (CCAR) under the advisement of the late Professor George H. Born. Dr. Born gave me a chance when many others might not have because I did not score well on my GRE and my undergraduate grade point average was not as high as many people entering graduate studies.” Jah expressed his gratitude to Born: “This chance that he gave me has resulted in a tremendous career from navigating Mars spacecraft to solving some of our greatest problems in space traffic management around Earth.”
When asked what his favorite career memory is, Jah replied that he had two favorite memories: “One of my favorite career memories is getting incredible and consistent results out of my research investigating methods that could automate aerobraking operations by processing on-board satellite measurements.” He explained, “This work resulted in my Ph.D. and a NASA Space Act Award in 2007. I hoped that I would be able to find an improved way to compute aerobraking trajectories with these data but I proved it! A nice result was my ability to extract the most detailed atmospheric density profiles of Mars than anyone at the time.” Jah’s second career memory revolved around space objects, as he related: “My second favorite career memory was to see an algorithm that I co-developed with Prof Kyle DeMars and others for autonomously detecting and tracking space objects given no prior information, from sparse angles-only observations, work with real data consistently and for a large number of objects AND an algorithm that I co-developed with Prof Kyle DeMars for autonomously adapting itself to match the realistic uncertainty evolution of arbitrary probability density functions called AEGIS, work that would be useful to people across multiple scientific fields” He concluded our talk on this subject by aptly noting: “Engineering is about using science to solve problems…and I’ve done that.”
When the conversation turned to Dr. Jah’s advice for students in high school and in college, who are thinking about aerospace as a career, Jah replied, “There are no shortage of science and technology needs in aerospace, don’t feel discouraged by the abundance of information – we have a home for you and need you. The biggest leaps in our understanding come from people who live in ‘the tails of distributions at the intersection of multidisciplinary fields.’ Always look at what others are doing in other fields and see if there are successes you can bring into your own. There is no substitution for hard work!”
For young professionals who are wondering how to get ahead in their careers, Jah had this advice: “Put your head down and do the great work you can do. Recognize that there are lots of great ideas but in a world where we are saturated by problems and are limited in resources, you must articulate why your work is important, who should care, and do it in a way that non-technical people can understand. Be transparent and forthcoming with all the assumptions and caveats in what you do.” He continued, “Never get into emotional arguments, always stand on your professional/technical merits. Recognize that there are many approaches to solve a common problem and don’t assume that yours is the only one or the best. If you respect your tradecraft, be willing to subject it to the scrutiny of the world and if it survives, you’ve got something solid, if not, be open to change.”
For senior members, looking to make a difference in the lives of young professionals, Dr. Jah advised, “Senior members of the aerospace community can be more helpful by actively mentoring junior staff and being less insecure about their own careers by encouraging and helping young professionals to do greater things than they have.” He continued, “If you believe that your work is important, then you must ensure that it continues beyond yourself and that only really comes about by mentoring and giving back to the community!”
We closed the interview by discussing what may lie ahead in space object behavioral sciences, and why understanding this area of research will help advance space exploration efforts. Jah said, “We will approach the population of man-made objects as an ecosystem. We will leverage ontologies to help us discover things and relationships amongst the objects that we’ve never imagined possible. We will pursue the correlation of space object behavior to geophysical processes and see if any particular species has a behavior tied to climate changes, magnetic field changes, etc. We will develop a scientific taxonomy for this population, understand how various species are born and which ones beget other objects, and the physical processes driving this behavior. We will do this and help preserve our space environment for future generations, keeping people and services as safe as possible from loss, disruption, or degradation. We will help inform improved space law and policy.” Dr. Jah finished our conversation by stating: “We will help clean up the mess we have created and help all spacefaring nations be good stewards of this precious resource that affects our daily lives in more ways than one.”
AIAA congratulates Dr. Moriba Jah for his selection as the June 2016 Spotlight subject, and wishes him the best as he continues to increase our knowledge of how objects behave in the space environment.