The Unseen Impact of Space Research

McGill Engineering Doctoral Award (MEDA)-supported studies led by Professor Arun Misra at the McGill Institute for Aerospace Engineering are tackling some of the lesser-known, but high-impact issues of space research.

Within the last decade, successful missions to asteroids, rover landings on Mars, and the emergence of companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have captured the imagination of the public. But whereas many researchers are gravitating towards space exploration, Professor Arun Misra and his colleagues at the McGill Institute for Aerospace Engineering (MIAE) have focused their research on the applications of space-based technology.

The MIAE was established in 2009 with the support of alumnus Lorne Trottier, who has also been an active supporter of the Faculty’s efforts in sustainability. Today, the MIAE focuses the efforts of over 40 professors on aerospace research, which complements Montreal’s position as a major hub in the global aircraft industry. Indeed, the institute was conceived to nurture contact between research and industry.

According to Prof. Misra, space-based applications are too often overlooked by the public. Because the truth is that space engineering – thanks to our reliance on satellites – has far-reaching impact on our day-to-day life. Traditional maps, for example, have given way to satellite navigation for ground, air, and sea travel. Telecommunication satellites are integral parts of telephone and television networks. Weather prediction is dependent on meteorological satellites and space-based sensors gather data crucial to the study of climate change and the development of prediction models, as well as detecting the deterioration of the Earth’s ozone layer.

Moreover, the concept of a space-based internet communication system to provide global internet service is very close to reality; companies such as SpaceX (Starlink System), OneWeb and Amazon (Kuiper System) are working on constellations consisting of hundreds of satellites surrounding the planet. These satellite constellations will provide complex networks of communication links that will interact with the growing Internet of Things, which in turn will integrate with AI. All of these interconnections will bring unprecedented changes to everyday life.

Improving Lives Through Space

Prof. Misra’s work revolves around the dynamics and control of satellites and space structures, satellite formations and constellations, and spacecraft dynamics associated with space exploration. He is also particularly interested in the capture of space debris. The increasing reliance on satellites means that sustainability is the key not only on Earth, but in orbit as well.

“The problem with space debris removal is that since it does not generate revenue, no one is willing to pay to clean it up,” he says. Nevertheless, many operational satellites such as the International Space Station (ISS) are obliged to deploy ‘avoidance strategies,’ which temporarily change the station’s orbital trajectory to avoid collision with space debris. It’s one example of how space traffic and waste management has become a critical element in the continued development and deployment of spacecraft and satellite technology.

Prof. Misra’s space-debris research explores active and passive debris removal. In the passive approach, drag enhancement techniques are used; for example, an electrodynamic cable can be attached to a satellite, which generates enough drag to bring the satellite down. Active debris removal strategies, on the other hand, use a combination of technologies such as robots or tether nets to capture debris and pull it into a so-called ‘graveyard’ orbit with other debris.

Space may be infinite area, but the Earth’s orbit is not. The miniaturization of satellites and the increase quantities being deployed are driving the need for debris disposal systems and the development of sustainable space technology. Prof Misra’s study of space is motivated by his desire to improve the lives on the planet. Although these technologies may remain imperceptible to some on the ground, their impact on the world today and tomorrow should not be taken lightly.

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