The Space Force has ambitious plans to support American companies and astronauts as they try to return to—and set up shop on—the moon. But to succeed, the military first needs to understand more about what’s near Earth’s only natural satellite.
Rhea Space Activity, a Washington-based space technology and policy startup, will lead a project to create the field of “lunaspatial intelligence” (LUNINT), the collection of intelligence data on activity in cislunar orbit and on the moon’s surface, for the Department of the Air Force. The $50,000 contract is small in the scheme of DOD funding, but could have an outsize impact in utility for the new space age.
Imagine you’re in a spacecraft heading from the Earth to the moon. At what point do you stop depending on the network of Earth- and space-based sensors that tell you what’s nearby, and start depending on a separate network that offers situational awareness near and on the moon? If you want to collect signals intelligence from systems emitting near the moon, what orbit do you need to be in, and how do you ensure the data can traverse a much farther distance than information in closer orbits? Those considerations are among the questions Rhea is trying to answer for the Space Force’s intelligence officers.
Rhea and Australia-based Saber Astronautics will create a three-dimensional dashboard that shows the coordinates of noteworthy objects in cislunar orbit, furthering the practice of space domain awareness. Saber aims to introduce LUNINT into the Space Force’s virtual-reality “Space Cockpit” software that was developed by the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., as well as the commercial Predictive Ground Station Interface software.
“It’s hard for [space professionals] to envision the battlespace within which their satellites operate, so using the tools like virtual reality, they can put themselves in that battlespace, sitting on the very satellite that they’re controlling,” Space Force Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting said of Space Cockpit in a November 2019 video. “They can turn as they wish and look at where other satellites are relative to them, and they can start to ask questions, like ‘What is that other satellite doing? Why is it so close to me? What should I do in response to that?’ It gives us an intuitive feel for the battlespace that we’ve really been challenged to create for our operators when dealing just through a text computer screen.”
Jason Held, Saber’s chief executive officer, indicated in a recent press release that the team would try out their ideas with the U.S. military as well as “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partners Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
“In addition to the dashboard, the LUNINT program will suggest an optimum satellite constellation architecture to monitor cislunar spacecraft,” Rhea said in the release. “The two companies also plan to develop doctrinal recommendations on how such a new capability will fit into current U.S. intelligence practices, and the broader Five Eyes intelligence alliance.”
Shawn Usman, an astrophysicist who founded Rhea after working in the intelligence community, said the startup is also working on cislunar propagators, which are algorithms that help predict a spacecraft’s location in orbit, and mapping tools for the moon’s surface using decades’ worth of lunar images. Technology isn’t currently as accurate as it needs to be for cislunar use, according to Rhea physicist Cameo Lance.
The Space Force declined to comment on how it could use lunaspatial intelligence as the U.S., Russia, China, India, collaborative European projects, and commercial companies jockey for space around the moon and its poles.
“They’re going to have to expand their collection capabilities because everything so far has been aimed at low Earth orbit up to [geosynchronous Earth orbit],” said James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. “GEO is only about 1/10th of the way to the moon. … The operations we’re looking at over the next generation are going to be in lunar orbits. The Air Force’s responsibility is to detect what’s going on out there and who’s doing it.”
In part, that means making sure there are no surprises lurking in space for U.S. assets in GEO. The service is already quietly detecting certain activities happening beyond GEO, but it lacks the coverage and resolution enjoyed in closer orbits, Vedda said. He expects space-based sensors will help solve that problem, though what types, how many, and where to put them is still in question.
The U.S. wants to return people to the moon by 2024. While Usman made the case for putting systems on orbit that would enable that mission, others think the military will take longer to field LUNINT technology.
“I would think that we’re certainly talking more than five years [away],” Vedda said. “It depends on what level of sophistication of system we’re talking about, as to whether it’s going to be there in 10 years or whether it’s going to take 20.” LUNINT capabilities could launch from Earth by the end of the 2020s, Vedda added.
Some say the military should focus first on improving intelligence capabilities in orbits closer to home, like in medium Earth orbit—home to navigation satellites—or geosynchronous Earth orbit, which is mainly used by communications systems.
As humans return to the moon, it may require its own sort of GPS enterprise, communications, remote sensing, and more that the Earth already uses. The Space Force will want to track all of that activity as it expands, ideally on a daily basis to keep tabs on where satellites, debris, and other objects are going, Vedda said. He also argues that space users and travelers need to establish norms of behavior to keep the amount of space debris down in new orbits, so there’s less to worry about for space domain awareness.
Rhea Space Activity is working under a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research contract that allows it to prove out its concepts enough to snag a Phase II contract worth more money. The companies eventually hope to transition their technologies and ideas to regular operations at the end of the small business program.