AFRL jumpstarts early research on cislunar monitoring, satellite servicing

WASHINGTON: Air Force Research Laboratory has chosen the first two winning teams in its new Space University Research Initiative (SURI) program, with research projects designed to build on-orbit servicing capabilities and improve space monitoring, including in cislunar space beyond Earth’s orbit.

Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, AFRL director, told reporters today that the SURI program “started out as a pilot” and is aimed at transitioning “high-risk, high-reward ideas in science” to “applied technology and advanced technology development.

“And, boy, has it grown into something that’s so exciting!” she said. “It allows us to create synergies between the academic sector and the military one.”

SURI is being managed by AFRL’s Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and is aimed at combining so-called 6.1 basic research with early 6.2 applied research. In March 2021, the lab issued a notice of the first funding opportunity under SURI, with “awards of up to $1,000,000 per year per award spanning three to five years in the areas of Space Logistics and Mobility and Space Domain Awareness (SDA).”

Space Logistics And Mobility

The winning proposal in the logistics and mobility arena is called “Breaking the ‘Launch Once, Use Once’ Paradigm,” submitted by principal investigator Howard Choset, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) along with six other partners from CMU, Texas A&M, University of New Mexico, and Northrop Grumman, AFRL explained in a press release today.

Andy Williams, AFRL’s deputy technology executive officer for space science and technology, told reporters that “the focus of this effort is to really look at: ‘How do we create the ability to not have satellites be basically locked in stone with their capabilities, with the exception of software upgrades, when you launch it?’ So, it’s looking at the hardware capability aspect.”

The end goal is for the team to develop “fundamental and applied research” for On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing that can be transitioned to AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate and Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman, via its SpaceLogistics unit, has been investing heavily in OSAM, including debris removal — another area Space Force has expressed interest in.

Williams said that there “are three major themes” to the research.

The “first and foremost,” he said, is “intelligent on-orbit inspection.” This means “understanding the state of the health of the spacecraft,” and using “machine learning and artificial intelligence” to understand how “machine vision” can be used to “detect anomalies external to the spacecraft and understand where we can dock.”

The second focus is what Williams called “dexterous on-Earth maintenance.” This involves “using both hard robotic and soft robotic concepts in order to actually do the mechanical repair/replacement/enhancement of vehicles to really to get to that point where we can do refueling for maneuver.” He noted that the Space Force is “really interested” in on-orbit mobility as one of its “key core competencies.”

The third area is on-orbit manufacturing, he said, including “using technologies like some 3D printing concepts, in order to add additional capability on orbit.”

Space Domain Awareness (SDA)

AFRL’s goal is “to identify basic research enablers for innovative SDA applications pertaining to sensors and measurement strategies, data fusion, and autonomy,” the lab’s press release said. The hope is to find ways to improve today’s space object monitoring and tracking capabilities, as well as to figure out how to find and follow spacecraft and other objects, such as debris and meteoroids, in the vast distances beyond the outer edges of Earth’s orbit.

The winning proposal is titled “Space Object Understanding and Reconnaissance of Complex Events (SOURCE),” submitted by John Crassidis, the principal investigator at the University of Buffalo, along with six partners from The Pennsylvania State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.

“The primary objective of the SOURCE effort is to develop a scalable framework that has the ability to fuse data from many different disparate sources with orbital dynamics models for enhanced space domain awareness, and extend those capabilities to the X-geostationary, or X-GEO, domain,” Shery Welsh, AFOSR director, told reporters.

X-GEO refers to the vast volume of outer space beyond the Geostationary Orbit (GEO) belt, some 36,000 kilometers above the Earth and the farthest orbit from Earth where satellites (mostly for communications) usually are stationed. Space Force is particularly interested in expanding its future capabilities to cislunar space between GEO and the Moon’s outer orbit and the region between the Moon and Mars — with a wary (some analysts would say paranoid) eye on China’s space exploration activities.

Welsh explained that AFRL and the SOURCE research team would be “working really closely” with Space Force and operational units, such as the 18th Space Control Squadron that is responsible for the US military’s space monitoring and tracking network, as well as Space Systems Command.

“Some of the specific objectives are conducting studies to significantly improve that dynamic modeling capability for the entire X-GEO regime,” Welsh elaborated, “while incorporating tools from astrodynamics and state-of-the-art machine learning techniques as well. Also to investigate new tracking approaches, which we desperately need, that significantly advance uncertainty quantification methods to enable accurate forecasting of space objects, as well as the tracking of moving satellites.”

There are nine questions the researchers will be seeking to answer using “theoretical and experimental studies, she said. Some examples are: “How do we find trajectories that connect cislunar to GEO? What are the appropriate data structures required to represent trajectories in X-GEO? … How do you design an optimal optimized space-based sensing platform involving passive sensors, so they can provide coverage in cislunar space?”

Welsh stressed that the SOURCE team “is really pushing” cutting edge “techniques for analyzing sensor data” as it researches “how to build more efficient algorithms for sampling modeling and predicting dynamics in orbit.”

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