CISSM awarded UMD grant to crowdsource space object database

January 11, 2016

The CISSM project to crowdsource a comprehensive, open-access database of space objects received a boost when the University of Maryland awarded it with a $50,000 seed grant to demonstrate the proof of concept.

Although some government and private organizations have databases with information about the location and orbit of some satellites, and sometimes about large pieces of debris, these databases are not comprehensive. For example, even the catalogue of space objects maintained by the U.S. Air Force has major gaps in coverage, particularly regarding small objects and objects in orbit around parts of the southern hemisphere. Additionally, access to this catalogue is carefully controlled.

The CISSM project, which is a collaboration with the university’s Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research (CODER), will draw on connections to scientists, civil society groups, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and amateur astronomers around the world to compile an open-access database alternative that could improve overall awareness of the space environment, particularly regarding objects and orbits that are not well captured in current data, and ensure greater access to all available data.

One of the project’s major challenges will be the development of software for a “Universal Translator” to convert raw data from different sources into a standard format and to store them in a web-based, searchable, and downloadable archive.

“This project is a pragmatic way to increase transparency and build confidence among parties working in or on space,” said CISSM Interim Director Nancy Gallagher. “The potential benefits far outweigh the potential downsides of sharing more information about space objects.”

The award is part of the University of Maryland (UMD) Division of Research’s Tier 1 Faculty Incentive Program, which provides new proof of concept seed grants, typically to individual faculty or multidisciplinary teams of faculty, for the pursuit or establishment of new research directions, and seed grants that support scholarship in fields where external funding is scarce. Gallagher was among five university faculty members who received support through the program for 2016.

CODER was established to address all issues related to orbital debris. These include technology and systems, space policy, economics, legal, and sociological issues. One of the center’s long-term goals is the development of policies, laws and space systems that will lead to the efficient remediation and control of space environmental pollutants.