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USAF Seeks SBIR Proposals for Cislunar Space Operations

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 15, 2019
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In what might be a reaction to China’s ambitious space program, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) will award funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to proposals for commercial technology that will allow it to operate in cislunar space.

“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 service said in a pre-solicitation notice.

The USAF is interested in the following areas relating to cislunar space:

  • payloads for providing space domain awareness from the lunar surface;
  • low SWaP-C, wide field of view sensors for space-based space domain awareness;
  • study to provide methodologies for orbit determination and catalog maintenance in cislunar space. Objectives of the study would be to define the contents and requirements for a catalog of cislunar custody data, investigate ML/AI tools to associate observations, both astrometric and photometric, with orbit information, methodology to improve orbital information with multiple observations, and a methodology to predict degradation of orbital information during observational gaps;
  • concepts for providing position, navigation, and timing solutions for cislunar space operations;
  • study on providing low SWaP-C optical communication (total power, beam size, pointing, data rates, etc.) links from Earth to cislunar space and vice versa;
  • concepts for providing visualization of cislunar orbits/trajectories, and,
  • terrestrial-based concepts for providing space domain awareness of cislunar space

In its 2019 Annual Report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said that China is making plans to achieve a commanding position in cislunar space.

“Beijing envisions the cislunar domain as the foundation for this long-term presence in space and jumping-off point for deep space exploration missions. This foundation for long-term presence will potentially include a transport hub orbiting Earth with permanently docked nuclear-powered shuttles for space missions, accessible from Earth via reusable rockets,” the report stated.

China is developing plans for a lunar base, space-solar power satellites, and the mining of the moon and asteroids, the document added. [Full Report]

The commission said Congress should direct the National Space Council to take a number of steps to meet the cislunar challenge from China.

  • A long-term economic space resource policy strategy, including an assessment of the viability of extraction of space-based precious minerals, onsite exploitation of space-based natural resources, and space-based solar power. It would also include a comparative assessment of China’s programs related to these issues.
  • An assessment of U.S. strategic interests in or relating to cislunar space.

Other Space-related SBIR Topics

Cislunar space is one of 19 topics where the USAF wants SBIR proposals by Feb. 12. Other topics involving satellite communications and geospatial imaging and data analysis are below.

High Performance Small Satellite

Examples of areas of interest include:

  • compact, high power energy generation and storage concepts;
  • high-performance on-board processing including heterogeneous processing concepts;
  • broadband communication antennas and software defined radios;
  • advanced attitude control sensors and actuators;
  • thermal control systems for high power components and deployable radiators;
  • advance manufacturing technologies including additive manufacturing;
  • high delta-V propulsion concepts especially supporting green fuels;
  • high-compaction deployable structures and apertures;
  • low-cost, mass-producible payloads; and,
  • modular, open source flight software and cyber security technologies.

Ubiquitous Satellite Command, Control, and Operations

Current or emerging capabilities to support this objective are sought in the following areas:

  • microservices for a decision engine to detect, characterize, and assess threats, as well as respond;
  • microservices for a decision engine to detect, characterize, and assess threats, as well as respond;
  • generating course of action responses within a dynamic environment for multi-domain command and control ;
  • innovative methods of rapid integration of large number of data sources into a data lake in a classified cloud environment;
  • fusion of real time data streams for real-time alerts in cloud environment;
  • case based reasoning system deployed as a microservice for multiple real time alerts;
  • cloud based scalable accredited astrodynamics algorithms, remaining delta-V estimators, and multiple orbital debris modeling as a microservice;
  • microservices based live-virtual-constructive (LVC) modsim capabilities with an architecture and framework that allows constructive simulation overlaid on live data and providing this to human-on-the-loop operators using real systems (virtual);
  • UI/UX development for white cell control for singular or distributed exercise orchestration with the ability to craft and execute practice/testing/training scenarios;
  • kubernetes-based deployment of microservices architecture to manage the production environment for all of the above; and,
  • information fusion across air, space, land, and sea for tailorable user defined situational assessment.

Communications Terminals

Communications terminals should meet the following requirements

  • The terminal will ideally be able to quickly shift between different commercial SATCOM providers without losing data. It is expected that this will require electronically steered antenna technology.
  • The terminal must be very low cost.
  • The terminal must accommodate multiple third-party waveforms such as those that may be utilized by commercial LEO and MEO SATCOM constellations.
  • The ability to accommodate unique government waveforms is of high interest, but not required.
  • Ability to establish communications across a broad range of the Ku and Ka bands.

Joint Focus Area with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The Air Force is specifically seeking new technology communication terminals that can establish a link with a wide range of different SATCOM capabilities. Examples of areas of interest include:

  • data analytics and visualization;
  • computer vision and machine learning;
  • Earth modeling; and,
  • business intelligence and data-driven production.