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Advancing Lunar Infrastructure: DARPA’s LunA-10 Program

Background and Vision

In the year 2035, the Moon is more than just a celestial neighbor—it’s a bustling hub of economic activity. How did we reach this point? DARPA envisions a future where NASA, international partners, and commercial enterprises work hand in hand to accelerate lunar exploration and commerce. The cornerstone of this vision is an optimized and integrated lunar infrastructure framework that revolutionizes the way lunar missions operate. Welcome to the 10-Year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) program, a DARPA initiative poised to shape the next decade and beyond (2025-2035), igniting widespread lunar activities and economic growth.

Unlocking the Potential of Lunar Prosperity

DARPA’s LunA-10 program recognizes the imminent emergence of a lunar economy characterized by scientific advancements and commercial ventures. To harness this potential, DARPA seeks innovative approaches that break away from isolated, self-contained lunar systems. Instead, the focus is on creating interconnected, scalable, and resource-driven systems that can operate collaboratively, maximizing the efficiency of lunar operations and offering monetizable services to future lunar inhabitants.

 

Key Thrust Areas

The LunA-10 program concentrates on four critical thrust areas, derived from an analysis of the future lunar economy sectors: transit/mobility, energy, communications, and other groundbreaking orbital or surface infrastructure concepts. By merging and co-optimizing these sectors, LunA-10 aims to establish key nodes that can evolve into ubiquitous lunar infrastructure.

Dr. Michael “Orbit” Nayak, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, highlights the transformative potential of LunA-10, stating, “A large paradigm shift is coming in the next 10 years for the lunar economy.” The study envisions multi-mission lunar systems, such as wireless power stations that also provide communication and navigation services. Building on DARPA’s legacy of pioneering technologies crucial to space exploration, LunA-10 identifies and accelerates key technologies that could revolutionize both government and commercial space endeavors, ultimately driving economic prosperity on the Moon.

Fostering Collaboration and Innovation

To realize this transformative vision, LunA-10 seeks visionary companies with robust business plans for lunar services. These companies will collaborate to design integrated, system-level solutions spanning multiple lunar services, such as energy, Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT), and communications. The goal is to create a framework where lunar services can be commercialized and utilized by 2035. This complements NASA’s Moon to Mars objectives focused on human exploration and scientific research.

Challenges and Opportunities

LunA-10 acknowledges the challenges inherent in achieving mass-efficient, multi-service lunar systems. Factors like lunar environment conditions, critical mass requirements for self-sustainability, performance metrics, logistics, and lifetime limitations pose complex questions that must be addressed. The program encourages ongoing technical exchanges between performers and the Government Integration Team to develop lunar infrastructure concepts that can be delivered efficiently and with maximum impact.

Towards a Responsible and Safe Lunar Future

All developments under the LunA-10 initiative align with existing policies and directives related to lunar exploration, research, commercial development, and protection. The program aims to advance responsible and safe lunar/cislunar operations, complementing NASA’s efforts and international agreements while envisioning a bright lunar future.

LunA-10 TA-1: A Closer Look

LunA-10 TA-1, a critical component of the program, focuses on the rapid maturation of lunar technologies and capabilities essential for future lunar architecture goals. This phase aims to design system-level solutions that fuse multiple lunar services, delivering a quantitatively defendable analytical framework for future lunar infrastructure. The ultimate objective is to leverage technology overlap between potential services to the maximum extent possible.

The LunA-10 TA-1 teams will:

  1. Collaboratively design integrated system-level solutions across multiple lunar services.
  2. Define performance benchmarks and metrics for each system solution, tied to an aggregate critical mass for a self-sustaining, monetizable lunar infrastructure.
  3. Analyze cost, logistical, and technological challenges facing the integrated framework(s).
  4. Create System Concept Review (SCR) level designs of the integrated systems.

The envisioned lunar architecture does not aim to support human exploration or scientific experimentation without commercial value. Instead, it seeks to create economic vibrancy through monetizable commercial services provided to a wide variety of lunar users.

DARPA Awards

In October 2023, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the 14 finalist companies for the LunA-10 project, a seven-month study that aims to develop a foundational concept for lunar habitation and development. The project seeks to identify and accelerate key technologies that can be used by the government and the commercial space industry to create a sustainable lunar economy.

The 14 finalist companies represent a diverse range of expertise, including aerospace, construction, energy, and robotics. They will work together to develop solutions for key lunar infrastructure needs, such as power generation, communication, transportation, and resource utilization.

The LunA-10 project is part of DARPA’s broader efforts to promote the development of a sustainable space economy. The agency believes that the Moon has the potential to become a hub for economic activity, and it is investing in research and development to make that vision a reality.

The selection of the 14 finalist companies marks a significant milestone in the LunA-10 project. Over the next seven months, these companies will work together to develop a comprehensive plan for lunar habitation and development. Their findings will inform future NASA and commercial missions to the Moon.

Here is a list of the 14 finalist companies:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • Boeing
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • General Dynamics Land Systems
  • Honeybee Robotics
  • Lockheed Martin
  • Masten Space Systems
  • Maxar Technologies
  • Northrop Grumman
  • Omega Space
  • Pitney Bowes
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • Teledyne Brown Engineering

These companies will be competing for a total of $10 million in funding from DARPA. The winning companies will be announced in June 2024.

  • ICON, a Texas-based 3D home printing startup, will be working on building structures using lunar regolith
  • Sierra Space will contribute tech it’s working on to extract oxygen from regolith
  • Firefly is putting forward “a framework for on-orbit spacecraft hubs” based on its Elytra vehicle
  • GITAI will explore deploying its modular Inchworm robots for lunar construction and maintenance
  • Redwire will work on communications and PNT services between lunar craft and cislunar orbiters

The LunA-10 project is an ambitious undertaking, but it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the Moon. By developing a comprehensive plan for lunar habitation and development, the project could pave the way for a new era of space exploration.

Conclusion

DARPA’s LunA-10 program represents a bold step towards transforming lunar possibilities into reality. By fostering collaboration, innovation, and a comprehensive approach to lunar infrastructure, DARPA aims to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of lunar activities, scientific exploration, and economic prosperity.

About Rajesh Uppal

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