Space force

The US Space Force plans to start patrolling the area around the Moon

Enlarge / The US Air Force research laboratory is looking to develop a satellite to patrol cislunar space.

US Air Force Research Laboratory

This week, the US Air Force Research Lab posted a video on YouTube that didn’t get much attention. But he made a pretty big announcement: The U.S. military plans to expand its space awareness capabilities beyond geostationary orbit, to the Moon.

“Until now, the United States’ space mission has extended 22,000 miles above Earth,” a narrator explains in the video. “That was then, this is now. The Air Force Research Laboratory extends that reach 10 times and the United States area of ​​operations 1,000 times, extending our reach across the Moon in cislunar space.”

The US military had previously talked about expanding its operational range, but now it is taking action. He plans to launch a satellite, probably equipped with a powerful telescope, into cislunar space. According to the video, the satellite will be called Cislunar Highway Patrol System or, you guessed it, CHPS. The research lab plans to issue a “request for prototype proposals” for the CHPS satellite on March 21 and announce the contract award in July. The CHPS program will be managed by Michael Lopez of the laboratory’s space vehicle directorate. (Alas, we were supporting Erik Estrada).

This effort will include the participation of several military organizations, and it can be a little confusing to keep track. Essentially, however, the Air Force lab will oversee the development of the satellite. The US Space Force will then procure this capability for use by US Space Command, which is responsible for military operations in outer space. Indeed, this satellite is the beginning of an extension of the operations of the US Space Command from geostationary space to beyond the Moon.

“It’s the first step for them to be able to find out what’s going on in cislunar space and then identify any potential threats to American activities,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World. Foundation.

Weeden said he does not believe the CHPS satellite will include capabilities to respond to any threat, but will primarily serve to provide situational awareness.

So why is US Space Command interested in expanding its theater of operations to include the Moon? The main reason cited in the video is the handling of increasing space traffic in the lunar environment, including several commercial missions sponsored by NASA, the space agency’s Artemis program and those of other nations. There will be people there. A recent report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, take me to the moonexamines the dozens of missions planned to the Moon over the next decade.

With the CHPS satellite, and presumably follow-on missions, the US military seeks to ensure the “peaceful development” of cislunar space and to provide a “safe and secure” environment for exploration and commercial development.

Cislunar highway patrol system.

Weeden thinks there is also another strategic element to this new program. Military leaders, he said, are concerned about space objects that are placed in cislunar space by other governments and then lost to existing space situational awareness networks focused on Earth orbit. low and geostationary orbit.

Such objects, he said, could swing around the Moon and potentially return to attack a US military satellite in geostationary space.

“I think it’s far-fetched, but it’s physically feasible and would certainly exploit a gap in their current knowledge of the space domain,” Weeden said. “I think they’re much more concerned about that than any real threat in cislunar space because the United States currently has no military assets in cislunar space.”