The Space Force wants a “road patrol” between the Earth and the Moon

They call the space “the final frontier,” but it starts to look more like Interstate 405 on Memorial Day weekend. At least that’s what the Space Force fears as the public and commercial sectors send more satellites into space between the Earth and the Moon. To keep tabs on this burgeoning space traffic lane, the newly formed US military branch wants to launch a Cislunar Highway Patrol System, or CHPS, much like the California Highway Patrol made famous by the 1970s TV show “CHiPs.” “.

“Until now, the United States space mission has extended 22,000 miles above the earth,” the Air Force research lab said in a recent YouTube video, which has was first reported by Ars Technica. “It was before, it is now.”

Although its exact definition is disputed, the term “cislunar” generally refers to space that is more than 22,000 miles above Earth (the limit of geostationary orbit) but not much farther than the Moon. (between 225,000 and 252,000 miles). The proposed new highway patrol system indicates how quickly this space is being developed and how much extra work the US military will need to do to keep tabs on it.

“With new U.S. public and private sector operations expanding into cislunar space, the reach of [Space Force]The sphere of interest will extend to 272,000 miles and beyond – a more than tenfold range and a 1,000-fold expansion in service volume,” the Air Force Research Laboratory wrote in an introduction. of 2021 on cislunar space.

There’s a lot of money to be made on the moon and the space in between. Lunar ice can be used to make water, oxygen and rocket fuel, which can power missions deeper into space, the Center for Strategic & International Studies noted in a 2020 report. The moon is also home to large deposits of helium-3, which can transform energy production on Earth by enabling nuclear fusion and rendering fossil fuels obsolete. NASA has also detected rare earth elements that can be used to make electronics and other products.

“Right now, the space economy is about $350 billion worth of work a year,” David Spencer, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, said in a recent video. “But over the next 30 years, forecasts indicate that the space economy will grow to around $3 trillion a year.”

The Moon Market beckons, but the challenge is to get there. Part of what makes going to the Moon so difficult is that the Moon has its own gravitational pull, which can easily be mistaken with the flight of a spacecraft between the Moon and Earth. Also, the Moon is very far away, which means objects there are fainter, detecting them takes longer, and sometimes sunlight reflecting off the Moon makes it difficult for near-Earth electro-optical sensors. to track things there, according to the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Graphic from the Air Force Research Laboratory showing various orbital paths between the Earth and the Moon. And you thought navigating northern Virginia was tough. (Screenshot via Air Force Research Laboratory)

All of these factors mean that it is difficult to monitor cislunar space traffic and ensure that no one is sabotaging other satellites or violating international treaties. Enter the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, where spacecraft would serve as remote sensor platforms to keep tabs on the Moon and everything around it. There is, however, an experimental vibe to the project: Part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s goal is to “demonstrate the basic skills to conduct space domain awareness operations in the cislunar regime,” a writes the government procurement website NSTXL in a road program notice.

Some of these skills include detecting and tracking objects near the moon that cannot be seen from Earth or near-Earth orbits, as well as developing new technologies to ensure highway patrol can operate fluidly and possibly autonomously, wrote NSTXL.

The Air Force Research Laboratory could award a contract for development of the Cislunar highway patrol system this summer, with a launch date as early as 2025, the defense technology website C4ISRNET reported last month. While it’s unclear exactly what the system will look like at this point, we can only hope it will be something like this.

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