WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has extended a research contract with startup Rhea Space Activity to develop a software tool to monitor and predict the trajectory of satellites in cislunar space, the company announced Oct. 20.
RSA last year won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 award for a “lunar intelligence dashboard.” The new $697,000 Phase 2 award is to continue the project which also is being funded by private investors.
“In this project we’re trying to understand cislunar space, and how to monitor cislunar space for defense purposes,” RSA’s founder Shawn Usman told SpaceNews.
The region of space between Earth and the moon, known as cislunar space, is viewed as the next military frontier, according to a recent U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory report.
This creates a challenge for the U.S. military whose space surveillance systems are based on Earth-centric reference orbits where objects follow a repeating pattern. In cislunar space it’s far more difficult to predict the course objects might take because orbits don’t repeat. “This is part of the difficulty of identifying the future locations of satellites in cislunar space,” said RSA physicist Cameo Lance. “There are literally infinite amounts of trajectories in cislunar space.”
RSA is working with Purdue University and Saber Astronautics on this project.
Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Kathleen Howell is known for her work in dynamical systems theory applied to spacecraft trajectory design in support of NASA missions. “We are excited to develop trajectories that aid the U.S. Space Force in monitoring cislunar space,” she said.
Saber Astronautics develops software for visualizing the space environment which is being used to develop the dashboard.
Venture capital firm SpaceFund is a new investor in RSA. Meagan Crawford, managing partner of SpaceFund, said she anticipates a growing demand for cislunar surveillance technology both for national security and for the commercial space economy.
Usman said the U.S. military will need intelligence to help predict the path of spacecraft that could one day be deployed in cislunar space and potentially threaten U.S. satellites in the geostationary belt around Earth.
“We’re particularly interested in cislunar trajectories that could have an impact on the geostationary belt because, as you know, the geostationary belt is home to a lot of very expensive satellites,” Usman said.
The lunar intelligence dashboard would be used by the U.S. Space Force to “investigate all these different trajectories in the cislunar domain,” he said. RSA is using open source data to develop the system.
Tracking objects in cislunar space today is “a very laborious process,” said Lance.
Purdue University researchers during Phase 1 of the project were able to map a multi-loop trajectory that becomes a retrograde orbit, she said. “We determined that to be an optimal orbit to put a constellation of surveillance satellites so cislunar space and the geostationary belt can be monitored.”
Separately from the lunar dashboard project, RSA is designing a satellite that could be deployed into this retrograde orbit for cislunar and geostationary orbit surveillance.