Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

To the Moon! U.S. Space Force’s Operational Area Just Got Much Larger

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 24, 2020
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The Moon seen from the International Space Station. The image was taken by ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli during his second mission to ‘MagISStra’ on 20 March 2011. Paolo commented on the image: “Supermoon was spectacular from here!” (Credit: ESA/NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I looked a bit more into this memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was signed earlier this week by NASA and the U.S. Space Force (USSF) to deepen cooperation between the two agencies. And there’s a really fascinating aspect to it.

“With new U.S. public and private sector operations extending into cislunar space, the reach of USSF’s sphere of interest will extend to 272,000 miles and beyond — more than a tenfold increase in range and 1,000-fold expansion in service volume,” the MOU said.

That’s out beyond the moon; our nearest celestial neighbor is only 238,900 miles (384,472 km) away. Previously, USSF’s authority extended the orbit of communications satellites at 22,236 miles (35,785 km).

“USSF now has an even greater surveillance task for space domain awareness (SDA) in that region, but its current capabilities and architecture are limited by technologies and an architecture designed for a legacy mission,” the memorandum noted dryly.

The MOU lists 11 areas of cooperation between USSF and NASA that include deep space survey and tracking, search and rescue, and “developing and sharing a talent pool of premier space professionals and expertise.” (See list below)

USSF will attempt to help NASA with its flagging effort to catalog potentially dangerous near Earth objects (NEOs). In 2005, Congress gave NASA the task of identifying 90 percent of NEOs 140 meters in size or larger.

As of April, NASA had only cataloged about 35 percent of the NEOs, in part due to under funding. At the rate NASA is going, it could take another 20 years to complete a task it was given in 2005, according to a recent report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

“Both Parties are at current limits for extending SDA beyond geosynchronous orbit and addressing the need for Near Earth Object (NEO) detection and tracking,” the MOU said. “However, there is considerable overlap between the technologies required to enable NEO and for SDA awareness, such as the USSF Space Surveillance Telescope.

“Just as current capabilities of the national security architecture — used to detect fireball meteors (bolides) as asteroids enter Earth’s atmosphere — provide important data for NASA’s Planetary Defense mission, capabilities to improve detection and tracking of human-made objects in cislunar space also could be used for the detection and characterization of NEOs,” the MOU added.

In other words, they will be sharing data. Hopefully, that helps NASA achieve its NEO goal before 2040.

An excerpt from the memorandum listing cooperative areas is below.

Cooperative Areas

NASA and U.S. Space Force look forward to continuing their fruitful partnership in existing areas of collaboration, as well as establishing new relationships, in the following areas:

  1. Deep space survey and tracking technologies to support extended SDA and NEO detection beyond geosynchronous orbit;
  2. Detection and data collection on bolides caused by natural objects entering the atmosphere, to provide timely reporting to the public and the scientific community;
  3. Capabilities and practices enabling safe, sustained near-Earth and cislunar operations such as communications; navigation, space structure servicing, assembly and manufacturing; and interoperability among those capabilities to support resilience for functions in this remote region;
  4. Search, rescue, and recovery operations for human spacecraft;
  5. Launch support;
  6. space logistical supply and support;
  7. Ride shares and hosted payloads to and beyond Earth orbit;
  8. Establishing standards and best practices for safely operating in space, to include conjunction assessment, space situational awareness sharing, orbital debris mitigation, and space systems protection;
  9. Interoperable spacecraft communications networks for Earth orbit and beyond;
  10. Fundamental scientific research and technology development cooperation; and
  11. Developing and sharing a talent pool of premier space professionals and expertise.

NASA and USSF agree to further investigate opportunities for potential collaboration in these and other areas of mutual interest during this exciting new era for both of the Parties.