Space force

Florida Tech Wins US$250,000 Space Force Contract to Support Space Debris Cleanup Project

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Florida Tech recently won a $250,000 contract with the US Space Force to support the debris cleanup project known as Orbital Prime, led by SpaceWERX, the technology arm of the US Space Force. (picture Florida Tech)

BREVARD COUNTY • MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – Florida Tech recently won a $250,000 contract with the US Space Force to support the debris cleanup project known as Orbital Prime, led by SpaceWERX, the technology arm of the US Space Force.

Madhur Tiwari, assistant professor of aerospace, physics and space science and director of The Autonomy Lab, will work on the project with a start-up.

The research will explore spacecraft automation using high-fidelity simulators. While the project will focus on cleaning up space debris, Tiwari noted that the technology could have other uses, such as automated repairs, docking or when multiple spacecraft are operating together.

With more spacecraft in service, there is a greater need for machines capable of performing unsupervised tasks. To meet this demand, researchers like Tiwari are studying the location of these machines once they are in space and how their location affects their efficiency in performing tasks.

“Let’s say I’m 10 miles from you. I could be 10.1. I could be 10.5. Actually, I’m never exactly 10 years old, am I? It becomes a problem if you think of cars very close to each other,” Tiwari said.

“It becomes a problem when spacecraft are very close to each other. So we don’t want to be very uncertain.

The contract will enable them to understand how to assess, in real time, navigation and operating hazards.

“We want to quantify this uncertainty. We want to know, okay, I think we’re in this bubble. We are in that range,” he said. “We want to be sure of our position within this range so that we can properly plan the other parts of the mission.”

This research also opens a new era with The Autonomy Lab. With a focus toward machine learning-based robotics and control, the lab also wants drones, quadcopters, and spacecraft to do things more independently.

Previously based at the university’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design, the lab is now housed in the Olin Physical Sciences Building in a space formerly occupied by the Orion Lab. Tiwari has a total of 29 students, including eight masters and three doctoral students.

Tiwari grew up seeing NASA’s space accomplishments and being captivated by the imaginative worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and other sci-fi entertainment.

Merging machine learning and aerospace was therefore a natural step for him. Add to that an interest in human function, and his research goals focus on a natural evolution of engineering and discovery.

“I’ve always been intrigued by mimicking the way we humans think,” Tiwari said.

“We’re such perfect machines, basically, in terms of how we want to perform daily tasks, achieve our goals, and navigate our surroundings. We’re so good at it. This is where the machine learning part comes in. So that’s the most exciting part for me, this search for how close we can make machines like humans.

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