Moon Maneuvers: Johns Hopkins APL Envisions Strategy and Technology Needed for Lunar and Cislunar Space

Thu, 11/10/2022 - 16:05
Ashley Hume

As space becomes easier to access through the proliferation of commercial launch vehicles, the lunar surface and a large swath between Earth and the Moon are poised to become the world’s next great frontier.

Industry, civilian space agencies and militaries all see this region — known as cislunar space — and the lunar surface as strategic locations for activities ranging from placement of military assets to resource mining, scientific exploration and more.

Cislunar space is the area between Earth’s geosynchronous orbit — approximately 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) from our planet’s surface – and the Moon. As more entities venture into these regions and vie for strategic locations and resources, the potential for competition and conflict between players — whether companies or countries — cannot be ignored.

“Because space capabilities have such a long lead time, it’s important to think ahead about what type of defensive technologies, algorithms and concepts are useful and how to achieve them,” said Wayne Schlei, a mission design engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) who leads the Lab’s programs around national security in space. “We have to start planning now for the future capabilities we will need in years to come.”

APL, in Laurel, Maryland, launched the Bad Moon Rising challenge as part of the Laboratory’s many funding opportunities — in this case, its Propulsion Grants program — to help do just that. These grants engage diverse teams with representatives from across APL to develop transformative, high-risk ideas with the potential for disruptive impact within 5-10 years.

“We’re looking broadly at national security challenges that the nation might face,” said Ian MacLeod, a senior national security analyst and challenge representative for Bad Moon Rising. “Through analysis, we try to identify future issues and bring some order and thought to them so we can enable the rest of the Laboratory to develop more exquisite solutions to those problems. That is what we hope to do with cislunar and lunar surface security.”

Two multidisciplinary teams were competitively selected to analyze the strategies, policies and technologies needed to promote peaceful, collaborative use of the cislunar regime, and to defend American interests if necessary.

“We had a very robust response to the Bad Moon Rising challenge, and the teams we selected had very different approaches that we thought would be complementary,” MacLeod said.

Artemis Discord: Identifying Policy and Technology to Prevent Accidental Interference

Over the past year, the Artemis Discord team, led by national security analyst Sarah Brothers, interviewed more than 40 members of the U.S. space community — from industry, NASA and national security organizations. The team aimed to learn the major concerns around the use of cislunar and lunar space, as well as the technologies and capabilities experts believe are necessary for deterring conflict in the region.

“Going into the project, we didn’t want to be the university-affiliated research center that sits in its ivory tower and says, ‘Lo, this technology shall solve the problem,’” Brothers said. “We wanted to engage with the community to truly understand the challenges and develop solutions that address them.”

The team worked with APL experts in human-centered design to formulate a data collection plan and develop insightful questions to yield detailed answers from stakeholders. Once the interviews were complete, the team synthesized the data and searched for key takeaways and common concerns.

“What emerged was a much more policy-centered solution than we expected,” Brothers said. “We talked with the stakeholders about many technologies, but their major focus was a need for the U.S. government to work collaboratively with industry to define responsible behaviors for operating in cislunar space and on the lunar surface, with the ultimate goal of upholding an environment of noninterference.”

Accidental interference could take many forms, from spacecraft colliding, to communications issues caused by using the same frequencies in close proximity, and more. Many stakeholders discussed concerns about accidental interference sparking conflict.

“There’s so much unknown about the environment and safe operating practices,” Brothers said. “Industry actors really look to the U.S. government to develop guidance on how they should act in proximity to other entities.”

These concerns also highlighted the value of enhancing situational awareness capabilities in the region. If operators in cislunar space could easily obtain basic information about others’ operations through voluntary sharing of information, it could prevent most inadvertent interference.

One of the Artemis Discord team’s priorities in the next year is to explore the architecture of a voluntary information-sharing network. They will investigate the technology needed to enable such a system and how likely the U.S. space community would be to adopt it.

“This kind of situational awareness will be really key if the U.S. wants to develop a sustainable lunar presence and a cislunar economy,” Brothers said.

The team has also begun communicating the policy needs it uncovered to entities within the U.S. government that can address them.

Supermoon: Characterizing Lunar Conflict

The second team, called Supermoon, took a different approach to the challenge.

Led by Cameron Brand, a structural engineer, the Supermoon team set out to characterize the worst-case scenario: What a conflict in cislunar space or the lunar surface would look like.

It quickly identified a number of challenges to moving Earth-based defense capabilities to the Moon: the lack of a lunar atmosphere, huge daily temperature swings and low surface gravity. Current Earth-based technologies and capabilities might not operate at all in the region, or need significant modifications to do so.

“There are a lot of capabilities we take for granted on Earth that become a lot harder [on the Moon],” Brand said. “You can’t have helicopters or airplanes or anything that hovers in the air, really. Similarly, there’s no water to float on. If you want to get around, you have to drive over the rocks, or you have to launch and land somewhere.”

Adding to the environmental challenges, cislunar space is far from Earth, making it difficult and expensive to transport a lot of equipment and resources. The Supermoon team looked at ways to use materials already present on the Moon to build infrastructure, including some small-scale physical testing with 3D printing using lunar soil imitations.

Over the past year, the team created a software simulation tool to help characterize the region’s operational environment, which helped the team evaluate technologies and potential conflict scenarios.

“Something like this tool will be useful for potential sponsors so they can see technologies in an operational context, or respond to scenarios with the simulation tool,” Brand said.

The team also evaluated a wide array of technologies that would be critical in the event of cislunar or lunar conflict, including mapping out communications and navigation architecture.

“Our hope with this challenge was to open up different ways of looking at this future issue and new possibilities for solutions to pieces of a complex challenge,” MacLeod said. “I think both teams have done that.”

Cislunar Security Conference

Home to the world’s largest team of lunar experts, APL is a leader in cislunar security. The Laboratory will host the Third Annual Cislunar Security Conference from Nov. 15 to 17. The conference is a forum on the technology, policy, doctrine and strategy implications of ensuring free access to transit and use of the Earth-Moon system beyond geosynchronous equatorial orbit. The conference aims to encourage national-level technical discourse related to domain awareness, policy and strategy, communications and infrastructure, trajectory design, threats, position, navigation, and timing for cislunar security.