Home / Geopolitics / Race to Dominate Cislunar Space, After China takes global lead in the moon race

Race to Dominate Cislunar Space, After China takes global lead in the moon race

There is global space race among countries to build Moon bases, harness it’s mineral resources and helium-3, fuel for future nuclear fusion power plants. Space agencies in China, Japan, Europe, Russia, Iran, Canada and a few private companies all hope to send people to the moon by as early as 2025. They’re talking about building bases, mining for natural resources, and studying the moon in unprecedented detail. A key figure at the European Space Agency says we must look at how we exploit the moon’s resources before it is too late, as missions begin surface mapping.


China has taken global lead in this moon race.  A Chinese spacecraft has become the first to land on the far side of the moon in a historic moment for human space exploration.  On January 2, 2019, the Chinese Chang’e-4 lander touched down on the far side of the moon, the first spacecraft ever to do so. Nearly ten hours later, Chang’e-4 deployed its Yutu 2 (“Jade Rabbit 2”) rover into the Von Kármán crater, part of the lunar far side’s vast. The rover has been conducting an exploration and sending the data of the moon through the relay satellite that provides a communication link with ground control.


The relay satellite, named Queqiao, meaning Magpie Bridge, after a Chinese legend, was launched on May 21, 2018, and became the first communication satellite operating in the halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the earth-moon system, nearly 500,000 km from the earth. The maximum distance between the satellite and the Chang’e-4 probe on the far side of the moon is 79,000 km. The satellite processes data from the probe and transmits it to earth, said Sun Ji, a designer of the satellite from the China Academy of Space Technology.


The satellite can stay in its orbit for a long time due to its relatively low fuel consumption, as the earth’s and moon’s gravity balances its orbital motion, said Zhang Lihua, chief designer of the satellite. While in orbit, it can “see” both the earth and the far side of the moon. From earth, the orbit looks like a halo on the moon, said Zhang. The concept of deploying a relay satellite in the halo orbit was first put forward by U.S. space experts in the 1960s, but was realized by Chinese space engineers. The satellite was deployed in order to maintain contact with the Chang’e-4. It has potential military implications because a data relay satellite set far beyond low-Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit makes the system significantly harder to target or jam.


China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft returned Moon samples to Earth in 2020 hoped to be the youngest returned to Earth: just 1.2 billion years old.
The samples will help scientists understand what was happening late in the Moon’s history, as well as how Earth and the solar system evolved. Chang’e-5 is now on an extended mission to test technologies at a location where Earth and the Sun’s gravity balance in a way that spacecraft can remain stable for long periods of time.

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These events have made the cislunar space, the entire space extending beyond Earth to the moon  next “high ground” a position of advantage or superiority  that needs to be  monitored and controlled.  The cis-lunar domain is defined as that area of deep space under the gravitational influence of the earth-moon system. This includes a set of earth-centered orbital locations in low earth orbit (LEO), geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO), highly elliptical and high earth orbits (HEO), earth-moon libration or “Lagrange” points (E-ML1 through E-ML5, and in particular, E-ML1 and E-ML2), and low lunar orbit (LLO).

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One of the factor of interest is the existance of  the vast  valuable resources available there. United Launch Alliance (ULA) President and CEO Tory Bruno has uvveiled it’s plan and roadmap to create a self-sustaining community of around 1000 people in the space between the Earth and the Moon. The CisLunar 1000 plans revolve creating an in-space economy that would tap into the vast amount of resources that could be harnessed from objects such as Near Earth Asteroids (NEA) and on the surface of the Moon.


ULA’s economic models show that a government investment of about $20 billion in infrastructure could energize space activity to the tune of $3 trillion by 2050, Bruno said. That activity would include mining, transportation, manufacturing and space tourism. On these bodies there is more than 1,000 years worth of planet Earth’s annual production of industrial and precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum, he said. “There is tremendous potential for economic wealth and economic activity just in the natural resources, let alone specialty manufacturing and things that we can only make practically in the environment of space.”

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The cost of transportation is a problem in developing a space economy so finding ways to produce fuel in space would be critical, he said. Propellants could be made from the more than 20 billion metric tons of ice available on the moon, Bruno said. “The great discovery of our time that has gone largely unheralded is the fact that water is nearly everywhere. This is literally millions of years of propellant.” He said water could be easily converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen which are used to propel rockets. “All we need is the infrastructure in place to mine the ice to convert it to propellant, and to distribute it to a transportation network that would exist in cislunar space,” Bruno said.


Cis-lunar space also offers affordable near-term opportunities to help pave the way for future global human exploration of deep space, acting as a bridge between present missions and future deep space missions. While missions in cis-lunar space have value unto themselves, they can also play an important role in enabling and reducing risk for future human missions to the Moon, Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), Mars, and other deep space destinations, says NASA.


NASA scientist  Richard C. Oeftering in his paper  describes a concept for a cis-lunar propellant infrastructure that exploits lunar water for propellant production and delivers it to users in cis-lunar space. The concept supports multiple goals: to provide responsive economical space transportation beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), enable in-space commerce, and support the multiple destinations of “flexible path” exploration.


This concept is “game changing” because it would fundamentally affect the architecture of future space operations, provide greater access to space beyond Earth orbit, and broaden participation in space exploration. The challenge is to create the infrastructure with minimum development costs and yet assure that operational costs do not diminish its benefits. The approach to achieving these objectives includes employing telerobotics, avoiding maintenance intensive machinery, exploiting the natural lunar environment, employing directed
energy technologies for resource extraction, and processing and establishing a robust electric power infrastructure

The economic Some members of the space community are sounding the alarm as China indicates it may seek to establish a commanding position in cislunar space, to include the area near the Moon’s orbit. Experts say China’s ambitious plans raise important questions about the national security implications of cislunar space — the areas beyond geosynchronous orbit. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., warned  that China intends to occupy the Moon. While the nation claims the base will be used for civilian purposes, Beijing’s civil-military fusion policy means that all civil work is intertwined with its military ambitions, he said. “The Chinese have said that they want to have a permanent presence [on the Moon] by 2024,” he said during a panel discussion at a Space Foundation event in February 2020. “They very much have military thoughts in mind when it comes to what they could do with a permanent presence on the Moon and the ability to track things and see things from an unchanging platform that no one really has right now,” he added.


The US Space Force echoes that thinking in a doctrine document published in August 2020, which says the service must prepare for a future when the moon and the volume of space around it could become the next military frontier. The Pentagon made known its interest in deep space in spring 2019, when then-director of the Space Development Agency Fred Kennedy revealed that tracking objects in the lunar sphere was on the agency’s priority list.


Cislunar space is strategically vital because the exploitation of space resources can — and will — alter the balance of power on Earth. That’s the view of Peter Garretson, an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. A retired Air Force officer, he was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Research Task Force, America’s think tank for space. “What is driving the U.S. military to look at cislunar is not some present tactical advantage,” Garretson said. “It is fear that China’s moves to cislunar space will provide it with a positional and logistic advantage from which it could occupy, constrict, threaten or coerce U.S. interests.” The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency has long-term plans to develop surveillance satellites to keep an eye on cislunar space.


The U.S. military is investing in new technologies to build large structures on the lunar surface. It’s designing a spy satellite to orbit the moon. And it just announced plans for a surveillance network — what it calls a “highway patrol” — for the vast domain between Earth’s orbit and the moon, known as cislunar space. Top military strategists and documents, meanwhile, now consistently refer to this region as a new realm of operations.


The government spending bill passed by Congress this week added $61 million for the military to pursue projects in cislunar space. “That’s basically the first significant chunk of money that we’re putting towards this,” said Space Force Col. Eric Felt, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.


The recent planning guidance from Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond calls for “an order of magnitude expansion of our ability to sense, communicate and act to protect and defend American interests in cislunar space and beyond.”


The new role is also enshrined in a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the Space Force that stipulates that the military branch’s “sphere of interest will extend to 272,000 miles and beyond, at least to the far side of the moon — more than a tenfold increase in range and 1,000-fold expansion in service volume.”


The monitoring and control of  any space is enabled by domain awareness.  Space situational awareness (SSA)  has been  the foundational element of space security, and it entails keeping track of all natural and artificial space objects, energy and particle fluxes and understanding how the space picture is changing over time. SSA is a system of systems dealing with space surveillance, space weather and NEOs. Comprehensive SSA requires a networked system of radars and electro-optical sensors. Now  with space competition and future militarization  has reached to Cislunar Space, militaries are extending the Space situational awareness (SSA) to this entire space betweeen earth and moon.



AFRL experiment named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System.

Announcement by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate that it will embark on an experiment to investigate technologies to monitor cislunar space. “It’s a brave new world for the DoD to embark on,” said Capt. David Buehler, manager of the AFRL experiment named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System. The U.S. Space Force is contemplating a time when its responsibilities could extend beyond geostationary Earth orbit, Buehler told SpaceNews. “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,” Buehler said.“I think our experiment is extremely groundbreaking,” he said. “This could be the first mission for DoD going beyond GEO.”


Buehler said the details of the experiment are nowhere close to being decided. AFRL plans to solicit ideas from the private sector and assess different technologies and approaches, he said. The Space Vehicles Directorate plans to host a conference for interested contractors sometime in 2021 at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, but the timing will depend on the coronavirus situation, Buehler said.


Scientists widely agree that the surveillance of cislunar space presents daunting technical challenges, he said. One of them is estimating the trajectory of objects that are subject to both the Earth’s and the moon’s gravitational effects, 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.” And the distances are mind-boggling, he added. “We have 1,000 times more volume to surveil. The space after the moon and beyond is 1,000 times larger, so you’re dealing with an enormous amount of volume.” The brightness of the moon also creates obstacles for sensors. “And that’s one of the things we’re hoping to overcome with CHPS,” Buehler said. “If you can get out near the moon, you can start to beat down some of those brightness challenges.”


As the project moves forward, AFRL will seek advice from the Space Development Agency, the Space and Missile Systems Center, and NASA. “We’re looking to actively partner with NASA wherever we can,” said Buehler. “Obviously, they have the expertise operating far beyond GEO that DoD just does not have.” A recent cooperative agreement signed by the U.S. Space Force and NASA lays the groundwork for future collaboration on cislunar space surveillance. Maj. Gen. John Shaw, commander of space operations at U.S. Space Command, called cislunar space surveillance a “big-data problem.” “It’s going to require many, many sensors and the fusion of data to present a picture, and predictive analytics to deliver an idea of what’s going on in the lunar sphere,” Shaw said on a webinar hosted by the California Polytechnic State University. “When you do the math, it’s a huge volume,” said Shaw. “In the military we talk about the tyranny of distance across the oceans. This is about the tyranny of volume.” Just understanding what’s happening in the environment will be hard, said Shaw, “And that’s if people are not up to mischief. Once you have threats introduced into that environment, it is even more challenging.”


The CHPS experiment will provide a glimpse into how DoD plans to leverage technology from the private sector. “It’s exciting to see that we might even open up the commercial market with what we’re doing,” said Buehler. “Until the government shows interest, businesses aren’t going to invest.” U.S. commercial companies are developing deep space technologies previously exclusively reserved for governments, from communications to navigation to lunar landing systems, said Doug Hendrix, CEO of ExoAnalytic Solutions, a firm that operates a large network of optical telescopes to track objects in orbit.


Space domain awareness technologies are a “foundational component of the infrastructure needed to support a cislunar economy,” Hendrix said. “For us, the telescopes looking at geosynchronous orbit are the beginning of a larger vision,” he said. ExoAnalytic currently has contracts from AFRL and from the Space Development Agency to demonstrate capabilities to track objects in cislunar space, and to figure out the components of a space-based architecture to do cislunar surveillance. One of the issues the company is examining is where to put satellites and what sensors would be needed to monitor space from the Earth out to the moon and even farther, said Hendrix. “There are different orbit designs to come after those challenges,” he said. “We’re in the early phases of the study.”


Most of the objects transiting today in cislunar space are research satellites and scientific probes. “So right now there are very few objects. But there’s a lot of commercial as well as sovereign nations’ interest in exploring the moon and creating maybe a permanent presence,” said Hendrix. “The Chinese are definitely on the path to creating a permanent presence. The United States plans to do so.” With the ground-based sensors available today, it’s possible to track medium-sized to larger satellites all the way out to lunar range, said Hendrix. “Cislunar is 10 times the range of GEO, objects are going to be 100 times dimmer. And it’s 1,000 times the volume to surveil.”


“We have been developing the technology for at least the last five years specifically to be able to see as dim an object as possible, which translates to being able to see farther,” he said. “The same technologies we’ve developed to see very small objects in Earth orbit allow us to see farther out into the lunar orbit.” Major investments will be needed in communications and navigation systems for cislunar space, said Hendrix. “We would like to see the U.S. government pay serious attention to this.” He said DoD has an opportunity with cislunar efforts to embrace new ways of working with the private sector. “These efforts will require rapid innovation,” Hendrix added. The U.S. government is now working to transition the responsibilities of space traffic management from Defense to the Commerce Department, he noted. “I’m really looking to see how they are going to expand these plans to include cislunar as that traffic grows.”


A team of space startups received an Air Force contract to develop a concept to collect and manage lunar intelligence.

Under a U.S. Air Force small business innovation contract, a team of space startups is working on a concept to collect and analyze information about objects and activities in cislunar space near the moon. “This is a Phase 1 study to investigate intelligence gathering as it pertains to the lunar domain,” Nathan Parrott, director of Saber Astronautics USA, told SpaceNews. The study is led by Rhea Space Activity, a startup based in Washington, D.C., which partnered with Saber Astronautics, a company headquartered in Australia with U.S.-based operations in Colorado. They will propose using a three-dimensional space situational awareness portal to track objects and analyze data. The companies announced on April 6 they won a $50,000 Air Force study contract to develop a concept for collecting and managing lunar intelligence.


Data about objects in cislunar space analyzed by Rhea Space Activity will be displayed and analyzed in a “space cockpit,” a ground mission control tool being developed under a separate Air Force small business innovation contract awarded to Saber Astronautics in 2019. “The space cockpit uses 3D graphics and gaming-like controls to give a more intuitive feel to the space domain,” said Parrott. A commercial version of the space cockpit is used by satellite operators to monitor, fly, and diagnose problems in spacecraft. The Air Force would be able to use the same system to integrate lunar intelligence, said Parrott.


“The cislunar domain is becoming more important for space domain awareness, particularly as the number of manned missions to the moon starts to increase,” he said. “Being able to ensure the safety of flight for these missions is of critical concern to NASA and others.” The government needs tools so that when missions are analyzed, they can be quickly visualized and reviewed, Parrott said. According to the Air Force small business innovation program’s December 2019 solicitation: “As the space beyond geosynchronous orbit becomes more crowded and competitive, it is important for the Air Force to extend its space domain awareness responsibilities to include this new regime. To support this new body of work, the Air Force is seeking commercial innovation in support of space domain awareness for future cislunar operations.”


The companies will complete the cislunar space intelligence study in about three months and then submit a proposal for a Phase 2 contract to start developing the technology. “The goal of any Phase 1 study is to hopefully progress it towards a Phase 2,” said Parrott. “That will depend upon the efficacy of the study and its potential to be commercialized among other factors.” Cameo Lance, a physicist at Rhea Space Activity, said that development of a new lunar intelligence discipline is inevitable as the U.S. military seeks to expand its capabilities beyond geosynchronous orbit to compete with China.




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