A congressional spending bill has added $61 million for the U.S. Space Force toward setting up a surveillance network — or “highway patrol” — to track the domain between the Earth and the Moon.
Nation-states and commercial companies will fly nearly 100 missions, both crewed and uncrewed, to the Moon by 2030. As the cislunar region fills with satellites and space junk — there are at present an estimated 27,000 piece of human-made objects larger than a softball in orbit — the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS) will track and identify all man-made objects a combination of optical and radar sensors — critical for mitigating potential collision risks.
“The responsible use of space and unfettered access to space domain awareness ensures collision avoidance, on-orbit logistics, communication, navigation and maneuvering, all critical to the United States and allied space commerce, science and exploration,” states a video produced by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory that can be viewed here.
Some critics warn that the intrusion of the armed forces into cislunar space represents a potential usurpation of NASA and militarization of space. Military strategists say the stakes are too big to leave cislunar space to the civilians, and the Pentagon will be compelled to take on a major role. China, which has plans to build a lunar base, cannot be trusted to pursue only peaceful aims, and could use its space program for both economic and military advantage, Politicosays.more “The Pentagon Plans Highway Patrol for Cislunar Space”
An important duty assumed by the embryonic U.S. Space Force will be tracking objects in cislunar space (the area between the Earth and Moon). The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate is now investigating technologies to undertake the task, reports Space News.
“It’s a brave new world for the [Department of Defense] to embark on,” said Capt. David Buehler, manager of the AFRL experiment named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System. Said he:
“If we’re going to protect and defend, the Space Force is going to need to understand the environment, have space domain awareness capabilities to be able to know where everything is out there.”
Tracking objects in cislunar space presents significant technical challenges. One is estimating the trajectory objects that are subject to the gravity of both Earth and the Moon. Said Buehler: “As you go further and further beyond GEO, you start to have these weird, non-closed trajectories, they no longer look like orbits, they’re more open-ended trajectories.”
Officials within the U.S. military increasingly regard Earth-Moon space as the “high ground” in military power.
A July 2020 report based on a virtual workshop involving more than 150 thought leaders from industry, government and academia, “State of the Space Industrial Base 2020,” identifies a need to control critical “choke points” in cislunar space.
By 2060 space will be a “significant engine of national political, economic, and military power” and the United States must commit to having “a military force structure that can defend this international space order and defend US space interests, to include US space settlements and commerce.”
Lunar-derived resources — especially hydrogen and oxygen — are key to access asteroid resources and Mars. “Today’s race to the moon has little to do with flags and footprints. Strategically, it is a race to the great wealth of lunar resources which will fuel the greater space economy and enable future exploration and settlement in the solar system.”
At present the U.S is the civil, commercial and national-security leader in space. The U.S. is the first nation to demonstrate commercial orbital delivery, commercial heavy lift, commercial first-stage reusability, deployment of space-based mega-constellations for overhead sensing and internet broadband. The U.S. military maintains the most capable military constellation including the unique X-37B spaceplane.
Nearly 90 of this year’s roughly 1,000 Air Force Academy graduates will become commissioned officers in the newly created Space Force. Some are members of an academy group, the Institute for Applied Space Policy and Strategy (IASPS), which features weekly speakers and formal research projects. The group, according to Science, is dedicated to gaming out the policies and philosophies that could guide military space activity.
One big question cadets ask is if the Space Force might someday have a military presence on the Moon. Such a thought might conflict with the pacifist worldview of many scientists, who regard cislunar space as a place for commerce and scientific inquiry, but in a world driven by geopolitical competition, someone needs to be thinking about it. In an interview with Science, IASPS President J.P. Byrne, who will graduate in 2021, offered a number of insights in the realm of “astropolitics.”
How can the United States, he asks, best mitigate the problem of space debris through space situational awareness and space traffic management.
Will mining be realistic, and if so when?
Will deterrence in space reflect deterrence on Earth? If something happens to a satellite in space, does that warrant a space response or an Earth response?
Will it be necessary, or even possible, for the military to sustain a presence on the Moon?
“The group was really interested in finding out what future role Space Force might have on the military-on-the-Moon concept 20 years or so down the line,” says Byrne. “Intergovernmental agency cooperation is paramount to having some future lunar base. Maybe [in this scenario], Space Force would select astronaut candidates who would complete training through NASA.”