Astrodynamicist Moriba Jah

Astrodynamicist Moriba Jah

National Geographic Explorer Moriba Jah is an astrodynamicist who specializes in identifying and tracking debris in space. He hopes to engage a wide audience about the interconnectedness of all things, inspiring people to embrace their roles as stewards and custodians of the planet and environment.


3 - 12+


Astronomy, Physics

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Identifying The Problem

“The problem is that in 1957, humanity launched the first satellite, Sputnik, from the Soviet Union. There’s been this kind of activity from different countries, mostly the United States, China and Russia, in launching satellites for a variety of purposes. But just like on the ground where we have single-use plastics, on orbit, every single object that we launch is a single-use satellite or space system. Once it dies, there’s no recycling and reusability. Once it dies, it’s garbage, and then it keeps orbiting for a very long time, sometimes perpetually depending on how far it is. Some things never come back. These things keep going at very high speeds. With time, these things age and fall apart, they break up into smaller pieces. Now each of those pieces is a hazard to something else. So basically we have a congestion of garbage on orbit. These things threaten the working satellites that are producing services and capabilities that we depend upon on a daily basis, like timing, navigation, banking transactions, communication and Internet.”

Early Interest in The Work

“I became interested in understanding stuff orbiting Earth after high school. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and my job was to be a security policeman guarding nuclear missiles in Montana at Malmstrom Air Force Base. I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, so a big city, lots of lights at night, and because of that, I'd never been exposed to a very dark sky before in my life… So I had no idea what space really looked like. It was amazing. For a moment, it made me think: This is what our ancestors experienced when it got dark because they didn’t have city lights. The sky is jammed packed with dots of light. I felt very unalone at that moment.

“Different from what our ancestors experienced, you could see planes go by every once in awhile and there were other dots of light that moved much faster than planes but slower than meteors or shooting stars. I wondered what these things were. It turned out that these things were human-made objects orbiting Earth that were reflecting sunlight in my direction. That got me curious to study astrodynamics, which is the science that studies motion of stuff in space.

“I went to college to study astrodynamics through aerospace engineering and my studies led me to land a job with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. I worked on Mars missions, which was pretty cool. I did that for about five or six years, then I relocated with my family to Maui and worked for the Air Force Research Lab on Maui. They had telescopes on top of Mt. Haleakala. It wasn’t until then that I had another oh-my-God moment. It was around 2006, the Department of Defense was tracking about 26,000 objects that were human-made, orbiting Earth, ranging in size from a telephone to a space station kind of thing, and it turns out only 1,200 of those 26,000 were working satellites. So at the time, like 96 percent of all the stuff we were tracking was junk. It was like I was being called to action.”

Most Exciting Part of Your Work

“I’m very much inspired by so-called traditional, ecological knowledge, knowledge of Indigenous people, these principles and tenets that are founded in the interconnectedness of all things, and embracing our role of stewards and custodians of our planet and our environment. So approaching the problem from that perspective, there are solutions – solutions in cooperation and collaboration amongst different people and countries, a respect for the interconnectedness that we all share, the ability to say, let’s stop making decisions that outpace Mother Nature’s ability to achieve equilibrium and even give us feedback on the unintended consequences of our actions and decisions.

“The thing is, there's a lot of hopelessness across humanity. I’m actually not part of the hopelessness, I'm part of the hope. In my life, in my own observations, I've seen that Mother Nature is very resilient. Whenever humans take the foot off the gas pedal, so to speak, Mother Nature always seeks to achieve a state of equilibrium. So attunement, harmony, is always the state that the universe is always trying to go towards.”

Most Demanding Part of Your Work

“I think the biggest challenge is just the absence of empathy. To me, that’s like a sixth sense that needs to be developed. The ability for people to project themselves into the perspectives of others is lacking severely and I want to find ways to motivate that, in great part through my relationship with the Society as a National Geographic Explorer.

“I find myself needing to become a better storyteller and to be effective through art and entertainment to engage mainstream humanity and our role in this wicked problem that we’re trying to solve.”

Elements of Your Work That Make You Proud

“People have been talking about space debris for decades, but the thing that I'm proud of is making it more mainstream across humanity by being less insular in this space community echo chamber and helping people relate to it. Space is for everybody. Space isn’t just for astronauts and scientists and engineers. It’s for artists and poets. It’s for singers. I think the part I'm most proud of is making knowledge and information more ubiquitous and easily accessible and understandable.” 

Advice to Students

“The first thing I would say to students is: All of the atrocities and sad things happening across the planet are caused by fragmented people. And fragmentation comes through trauma. We’ve all experienced some level of that. My main message to students is: The most important thing you can do is heal yourself and heal your traumas. And take that responsibility to own your choices. Power doesn't reside in controlling outcomes; power resides in our ability to make choices. The people that are the most powerful tend to be ones that 1) try to convince you that you don’t have the choice to make even though you do, and 2) try to convince you that you’re better off if they make the choice for you.

“I want to empower students and say, Take back your sovereignty as a person. Look at the choices that you can make and own the choices. Owning the choices also means owning the consequences of that, but you are your own master. You’re the captain of your own ship. Don’t let the opinions of others become your reality. Think of yourself as a steward. What does that mean? If you’re a caretaker of yourself and things in your community and your life, what does being a caretaker mean?

“I would challenge students to be a practitioner of knowledge, create knowledge, feel empowered to create solutions. By definition, you will be a scientist and engineer.”

What Being an Explorer Means to You

“It’s about raising awareness amongst humanity to remind people of this interconnectedness and incentivize them to embrace stewardship and custodianship as a way of life. I also see that information and knowledge is asymmetrically hoarded across humanity, so what I try to do with my work is I try to make knowledge and information ubiquitous so that everybody has access to it.” 

Media Credits

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Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

June 20, 2024

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