Over six million kilogrammes of space debris are circling around the Earth at tremendous speed and is posing a danger to the functioning of satellites and thus to things like our data traffic. Mireia Leon Dasi designed a revolutionary simulation model to very precisely predict, and hence prevent, crashes of space debris. This earned her the title of Best Graduate 2022 at the Faculty Aerospace Engineering. Using the NWO subsidy granted to her start-up, she is now further developing her idea for use in practice.
There is a lot of space debris flying around. Parts of disused satellites or satellite components, bolts, springs and tiny particles such as drops of paint. The debris is a huge problem, says Mireia Leon Dasi. “Debris moves around at great speed and if it crashes, badly damages operational satellites and space stations, even if that debris comprises just one tiny particle.” An additional problem is that the amount of debris involved in every crash is increasing. “Every crash with a satellite or other object creates thousands of fragments that in turn become lethal projectiles that fly through space. The crash has a snowball effect – the Kessler effect – that will eventually mean that there is so much space debris that it will not be possible to even have satellites and space stations operating in space anymore. It will then not be possible to avoid space debris anymore. The consequences of this for our lives today are immense. Satellites literally connect us to the rest of the world. Without satellites, there would be no data or telecom traffic. Apart from that, satellites are used for activities such as weather prediction and to obtain a greater understanding of climate change developments.”
Too many assumptions
In her research, Mireia looked into how crashes involving debris could be predicted better. She explains why this is needed. “There are two approaches used at the moment. One is using simulations that may be very reliable, but whose calculations take too long. This makes it unsuitable to predict rapidly approaching crashes. The other is methods that may be fast, but are less reliable. This means that you cannot properly predict the moment of impact. Furthermore, the current methods assume that the debris is always spherical (a convex surface area). In reality this is not always the case while the shape of the colliding objects greatly affects parameters such as the probability of the crash.”
Much more precise
Mireia designed a new hybrid model, the model, that combines two mathematical models. Her methodology is fast and 70% more reliable than existing methods. This is partly because her model is not based on assumptions. Her model, for example, includes the fact that debris can have different shapes and that the speed trajectory is not always linear. Her model also significantly reduces the calculation time and costs as part of the calculations only needs to be done once.
Mireia explains that coming up with a new model was a major quest. “I tried everything to find a better algorithm, even ideas that seemed laughable at first. In the end, it was just such a laughable idea – my ‘plan D’ – that worked.” It took quite some perseverance. “Every tiny mistake that you made immediately meant that the model did not work. This was quite stressful. You needed to be able to handle the stress and not give up too quickly. You needed to stay positive in the face of failure.”
Economic and social relevance
Her hard work earned her a master’s cum laude (she passed with 9.5) and the title of Best Graduate 2022 at the Faculty Aerospace Engineering. The Board of Examiners highly praises Mireia and her work. Her thesis supervisor, Associate Professor Erwin Mooij, calls Mireia an exceptionally good student. “She was among the best 2% to 3% of her class during her master’s at TU Delft, let alone that the methodology Mireia developed has both economic and social relevance. What makes her special too is that during her internship at ESA (the European Space Agency) in Madrid, she had an article published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, an international scientific journal, in which she was the first author.”
Mireia is grateful and happy with the Board of Examiners’ appraisal and with the publication. “I am being quoted more and more. It’s amazing. And I’m really using the questions and comments of the Board of Examiners.” Ecosmic, the start-up of which she is Chief Technical Officer, is further developing Mireia’s model so that it can be launched on the market. She has received an NWO subsidy worth € 40,000 to do this. “We are developing hardware and software and we expect to be able to start testing the hardware in about six months’ time. The software will be ready before that.” She has taken on the role of supervisor. “We hired someone who is working full-time on developing the products.” She would of course have liked to have played a greater role in this, but even before graduating the Observatoire de Paris approached her to do her doctoral research there. The Observatoire de Paris is the most important observatory in France and is one of the biggest centres of astronomy in the world. “We are working on preparing the mission to Mercury. My research combines planetary science with machine learning (artificial intelligence). Another enormous challenge.”
We are working on preparing the mission to Mercury. My research combines planetary science with machine learning (artificial intelligence).
Best Graduate 2022 of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering
Is this the path that she had always wanted? “When I was a child I wanted to be an inventor. I always loved gadgets. Apart from that, I got my love for travel and nature from my parents. They are both university teachers in economics in Valencia. I also learned about the need to look after the environment from them as there is no other Earth. I hope my thesis research and start-up will help make our planet a better place.”