5 Questions for Amber Yang, Master of the ‘Space Debris Apocalypse’

by Diana Drake

“What never grows old? The burning desire of youth to reinvent the world.”

With those words, Forbes magazine recently presented its 2018 class of 30 Under 30, its annual “encyclopedia of creative disruption featuring 600 young stars in 20 different industries.” This year’s U.S. list includes 14 teenagers embracing everything from sales to space junk. Take, for example, 14-year-old Henry Burner, founder of Buttonsmith, a business that creates and sells pinback buttons, lanyards, magnets and other products and employs nine adults. Hannah Herbst, 17, has invented a device to capture energy from ocean waves. Check back with KWHS soon for our interview with Herbst. 

In the meantime, we’d like to introduce you to Amber Yang, 18 and a recent graduate of Trinity Preparatory School near Orlando, Florida. One of this year’s 30 Under 30, Yang has a deep passion for the troublesome debris floating around the solar system – otherwise known as space junk. She has spent the past several years building an artificial neural network to predict the orbit of space trash, which forecasts with 98% accuracy the paths all that junk will take. She was a featured 2016 speaker at TEDx Jacksonville, a top 2017 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award Winner, and has contributed to NPR’s Science Friday radio program.

Yang is currently a freshman studying physics at Stanford University in California. Now that she has made it to Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation, she is working to commercialize her space debris tracking software through her start-up company, SEER Tracking. She’s a busy student, scientist and entrepreneur. Even so, she took the time to answer five questions for KWHS.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: We love the title of your TEDx talk from December 2016: The Space Junk Apocalypse (see Related Links). Help us understand this fascinating area of research that you have made your life’s work for the past several years.

Amber Yang: Space junk is basically any defunct man-made object orbiting around the Earth that can include used rocket stages, old satellites, and fragments of space objects that could be as small as a fleck of paint. Currently there are tens of thousands of space debris in low earth orbit (LEO) that can travel at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour, which pose immense threats to operating spacecraft, such as the International Space Station. The density of space debris in LEO is only predicted to increase with time as existing space debris collides with each other to generate more fragmentation according to the Kessler Syndrome.

Current methods of tracking space debris utilize a mathematical model that is constantly updated whenever the orbit of space debris changes. However, the nonlinear nature of space debris orbits coupled with the high speeds in which they travel make space debris difficult to track with a traditional model. That is why my company SEER Tracking is seeking to utilize artificial intelligence, which is capable of recognizing and learning patterns in the orbits of space debris for more accurate predictions farther ahead into the future.

KWHS: You say that science helps you feel most alive. I think so many high school students want to discover who they are and what inspires them. It’s not always easy! What advice do you have for other teens to help them figure it all out?

Yang: I’m actually still trying to figure it all out myself. In my experiences, my high school taught things in a very static manner where concepts were memorized for tests and the curriculum was strictly followed. This manner of approaching education was very constricting for me and actually made me find certain subjects to be very boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the wealth of knowledge that you can obtain from self-learning via the internet that I began to become excited about subjects in school, since I was now learning about topics with a greater depth. There are tons of online classes, tutorials and YouTube videos about almost anything that can help you discover what you are truly interested in.

KWHS: Do you believe that women in the STEM fields face discrimination?

Yang: Discrimination in the STEM fields most often occurs subconsciously. Since there are fewer girls and women in STEM related classes or careers, it becomes easy for boys and men to associate the lack of females in STEM to them having inferior abilities. I do not believe that one person alone can be the inspiration or the empowerment to increase the female STEM talent pipeline at an early age. But as an increasing percentage of females in the young generation become involved with STEM, I hope younger girls no longer limit their interests in STEM simply because they see no other girls or women in STEM careers.

KWHS: Tell us a story from your teenage years (science-related or otherwise) that had a powerful impact on the course of your life. What lessons did you take away?

Yang: Unquestionably I’ve learned the most about life from my first quarter in college at Stanford. It was final exam week at Stanford, and it was 4 a.m. on a Monday. I still needed to do some final studying for exams, finish a computer science assignment, and work on a task for my company. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that you alone determine your success and that you can never truly rely on help from others. Choose to do things and study subjects that you truly love, because you are the one that ultimately defines your path in life.

KWHS: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Yang: Before I created my startup SEER Tracking, I had always pictured that I would be in graduate school pursuing a PhD in physics. However, with the recent surge in private space companies’ interests in tracking space debris, my future became a little less predictable. In 10 years, whether I am in graduate school or working on developments for SEER Tracking, I hope that I feel a genuine love for what I do. The accolades that I have earned thus far are all things that I originally did not seek out to earn. As I continued to pursue my interests, I became more recognized. I do not believe that I will burn out because I vow to stay true to my interests — even if they may change throughout my lifetime.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is space junk and why is it a problem?

How did Amber rise above what she describes as a “constricting” high school experience? Are you an advocate of self-learning? How have you found it useful?

Only five questions? If you want to ask Amber something else about science, space debris, or life, leave your questions in the comment section of this article. She may just answer them!

7 comments on “5 Questions for Amber Yang, Master of the ‘Space Debris Apocalypse’

  1. 1. Space junk also known as space debris, are the scattered pieces of waist throughout space. These pieces of junk are usually man-made and they’re a problem because they may charge threats too spacecrafts.
    2. Amber rose above what she described as a “constricting” high school experience by discovering the wealth of knowledge she could receive through online, self-learning. I am an advocate of self-learning as I find that through school you may not be taught everything you would like to know, and in order to receive a better understanding of a topic, you may need to go more in debt with it on your own time. I have found self-learning to be useful as it has given me more information on topics I may have been confused on or just wanted more information on.

  2. 1.
    Space junk consists of any man-made objects that is currently in orbit around Earth. Examples of space junk include, but are not limited to, used-up stages from rockets, fragments of a ship, and even micro-particles. Since the space between these fragments are immense, one may think that space junk is not a threat. However, as the amount of space junk increases, and as these pieces continue to fragmentize, according to the Kessler syndrome, these fast-flying piece of space junk provide a real threat to satellites and manned missions alike. One could only imagine the horror an astronaut would feel as their space suit is penetrated by a micro-sized speck of metal, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour. Indeed, space junk is a serious threat that must be dealt with.

    In the interview, Amber Yang mentions how her high school experience was, “constricting.” According to her, she able to rise through this challenge by self-teaching herself concepts, so that it becomes enjoyable, instead of being forced to learn something she simply doesn’t have an interest in. I would consider myself an advocate of self-learning, as by allowing yourself to explore what you may like, you are taking the pressure of having to learn for a test or assignment, and are able to find out what interests you. Once you find what you want to learn, you can learn it on your own time, without anything to force you. Indeed, conventional learning methods, such as those used in high schools, are still needed, as unfortunately, life is ruled by the clock, and high school, one way or another forces you to live by it, but having the opportunity learn at one’s will is an incredible resource, which can lead to success stories, such as Amber Yang. Personally, I have found self-learning useful, as sometimes, when I miss a day of school, self-learning allows me to catch up to a class, without having to bother the teach too much, while preventing me from falling behind in the curriculum. Furthermore, self-learning has allowed me to explore subjects learned in history, in school, in more depth, satisfying my intellectual appetite for history around the world, and enriches my general knowledge of the subject.

  3. 1. Space junk is any man-made debris floating around the solar system which can include old satellites, rocket stages and fragments of space objects. Space junk is a problem because it poses immense threats to operating spacecraft.

    2. Amber rose above a “constricting” Highschool experience by self-learning via the internet, this making her become more excited about school subjects which helped her learn with greater depth. I am an advocate of self-learning because it allows you to do things at your own pace and with the comfort of not having to stress about it being a grade in school, it also makes it more fun and interesting because there are so many methods and ways that you can learn something via self-learning.

  4. 1. Space junk, or space debris, is any nonfunctioning man-made objects that are orbiting around the Earth. Since the tens of thousands in the low Earth orbit of space junk can travel up to 17,500 miles per hour, it poses a threat to operating Spacecrafts.
    2. Amber rose above what she described as a “constricting” High school experience by self-learning through the internet. I find self-learning to be really useful since it helps me to get a better understanding of the concepts I learn in school. Not only that, I feel like volunteering to do work by yourself leaves a bigger impact on you than just doing a worksheet for a class that you need to complete.

  5. 1. Spacejunk is any man-made debris or space debris that are floating around the Earth. It is a problem because it can become a threat to the spacecrafts that are orbiting the Earth.
    2. Amber rose above a “constricting” high school experience by learning through the internet. Yes I am a advocate of self-learning I think it is a spectacular way. You benefit from it because you teach yourself ways that make it easier and that you can understand. Sometimes the way the teacher learns it might be hard for you to learn and there might be a easier way for you. I find it very useful.

  6. What is space junk and why is it a problem?
    Space garbage is fundamentally any outdated man-made protest circling around the Earth that can incorporate utilized rocket stages, old satellites, and sections of room questions that could be as little as a bit of paint. As of now there are a huge number of room garbage in low earth circle (LEO) that can head out at speeds up to 17,500 miles for each hour, which posture huge dangers to working shuttle, for example, the International Space Station.

    How did Amber rise above what she describes as a “constricting” high school experience? Are you an advocate of self-learning? How have you found it useful?
    “This manner of approaching education was very constricting for me and actually made me find certain subjects to be very boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the wealth of knowledge that you can obtain from self-learning via the internet that I began to become excited about subjects in school, since I was now learning about topics with a greater depth.” I cannot self- teach myself. I do not think most teenagers have the necessary amount of discipline to do this. People in High school should not be home schooled due to the fact they lose the opportunity on extra curricular activities such as clubs and athletic teams.

  7. Space junk, as defined, is man-made debris that has been discarded due to either the outdated nature of the individual rubbish or for outliving its purpose; this refuse is, in fact, varied, “space junk” simply being an umbrella term for multiple objects, both colossal and microscopic in size. It is a current issue for current and future expeditions due to the dangerous nature of these objects, posing danger to both orbiting satellites and any journey into space.

    Amber had partook of teaching herself, deciding to instead teach herself upon subjects that mattered to her rather than languish in the suffocating education system. Thus, became proficient in various subjects that she cared for and was rewarded with knowledge that she later utilized for various projects, such as her AI-reliant program. Personally speaking, self-teaching is an important tool for any upstarting entrepreneur or just anyone in general, allowing for an individual to become adept in any number of subject they so choose. Thus it is invaluable, offering much to any who chooses to utilize it to its fullest potential.

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