AFRL’s Big Ambitions for Lunar Patrol Satellites

 In U.S. Air Force, China, Air, Space, Forces & Capabilities

NASA’s planned Gateway station would operate in cislunar space.

WASHINGTON:  The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) has revealed first details about its ground­break­ing effort to build an exper­i­men­tal satel­lite for mon­i­tor­ing lunar-faring space­craft — includ­ing its pos­si­ble Lagrange point orbit and plans for a kick off indus­try day this coming summer.

The Cislunar Highway Patrol Satellite (CHPS) would be the first space domain awareness (SDA) to focus on cislunar space, the vast region between the Earth’s outer orbit and the Moon’s. It could also be the US military’s first attempt to oper­ate a satel­lite in the spe­cial orbital domains known as Lagrange Points, where a space­craft can, in essence, ‘hover’ in a rel­a­tive­ly fixed spot.

“We are eval­u­at­ing mul­ti­ple orbits for poten­tial util­i­ty in con­duct­ing the space domain aware­ness mis­sion. Most of the orbits of inter­est lie within the Lagrange 1 or 2 fam­i­lies,” pro­gram man­ag­er Capt. David Buehler, tells me in an email.

Lagrange 1 lies between the Sun and Earth, where NASA already oper­ates sev­er­al solar probes because of the unin­ter­rupt­ed view of the Sun; Lagrange 2 lies out­side the lunar orbit on a con­stant line of site with the Sun and the Earth, where NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will be placed.

These orbital posi­tions, where “the grav­i­ta­tion­al pull of two large masses pre­cise­ly equals the cen­tripetal force required for a small object to move with them,” are named after the Italian-French math­e­mati­cian Josephy-Louis Lagrange who first wrote on this so-called ‘Three Body Problem’ in 1772, NASA’s web­site explains. There are five such areas of space affect­ed by the Earth’s grav­i­ty.

Lagrange points, NASA image

Because of its first-of-a-kind nature, the CHPS pro­gram is still in its infan­cy — fig­ur­ing out the mis­sion set and spe­cif­ic goals.

“We are in the early stages of design and are work­ing to estab­lish the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy required for domain aware­ness to sup­port com­mer­cial and NASA activ­i­ties beyond Geosynchronous Orbit,” Buehler said.

This includes decid­ing what launch vehi­cle would be suit­able, and what sort of on-board propul­sion the satel­lite would require to oper­ate in L1 and L2 given that, in those regions it would need to sta­tion-keep every 23 days.

“We are eval­u­at­ing mul­ti­ple launch options includ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with NASA, pro­cure­ment of com­mer­cial ser­vices, and on-board elec­tric-propul­sion-based orbit-rais­ing,” Buehler said.

Likewise, the budget require­ments for the mis­sion, as well as a formal sched­ule, have yet to be nailed down. Nonetheless, if all goes well, AFRL envi­sions having the acqui­si­tion plan wrapped up over the next couple of weeks. The next step would be either an indus­try day or more formal request for infor­ma­tion (RFI), likely in the summer, he explained.

That said, the goal is for CHPS to under­take a number of exper­i­ments to help define what will be needed to extend SDA to cis­lu­nar space on a sus­tain­able basis.

“We are inter­est­ed in tech­nolo­gies to sup­port wide area search, narrow field track­ing, and autonomous space domain aware­ness. Additionally, we are inter­est­ed in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and posi­tion­ing, nav­i­ga­tion, and timing solu­tions required to sup­port the flight exper­i­ment beyond the GEO belt,” Buehler elab­o­rat­ed.

AFRL’s prin­ci­ple inves­ti­ga­tor on the project, Jaimie Stearns, explained in a Sept. 3 press release announc­ing the new pro­gram: “We need to address really basic things that start to break down beyond GEO, like how do we even write down a tra­jec­to­ry. The cur­rent space cat­a­log uses Two-Line Elements, or TLEs, which simply do not cap­ture the com­plex orbital dynam­ics and have almost no mean­ing in cis­lu­nar space.”

Volume of cislunar space, AFRL image

As Breaking D readers know, mil­i­tary space lead­ers over the past year have been grad­u­al­ly turn­ing up the volume on con­cerns about China’s long-term lunar explo­ration plans. China last January became the first coun­try to land a rover on the far side of the Moon.

“The rise of China’s space pro­gram presents mil­i­tary, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal chal­lenges to the United States,” says a new study by Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute and CNA.

“This report con­cludes that the United States and China are in a long-term com­pe­ti­tion in space in which China is attempt­ing to become a global power, in part, through the use of space. China’s pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion for devel­op­ing space tech­nolo­gies is nation­al secu­ri­ty,” the study says. “However, as China’s space pro­gram advances, its com­mer­cial and sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ties will become more promi­nent and will extend the com­pe­ti­tion to encom­pass eco­nom­ics and diplo­ma­cy, chal­leng­ing U.S. lead­er­ship in space just as China chal­lenges the United States across the full range of diplo­mat­ic, mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic power.”

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been posi­tion­ing the US for a race to open up space com­merce, via NASA’s Artemis project to put US astro­nauts back on the Moon and even­tu­al­ly on Mars and a series of space policy direc­tives aimed at pro­mot­ing the space indus­try.

As I reported on Tuesday, this includes pro­mot­ing mining of the Moon and aster­oids for water, metals and rare earth min­er­als. “There very well could be tril­lions of dol­lars — 10s of tril­lions of dol­lars — in large deposits of plat­inum-group metals on the Moon. And if that’s the case, if some­body were to be able to cap­i­tal­ize on those dis­cov­er­ies, it could change the bal­ance of power on Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

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