Rendering of a future space station orbiting the Moon

Rendering of a future space station orbiting the Moon Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Lunar Transit Is Closer than You Think. Here’s How the Government Can Prepare to Monitor It

The term “moon base” may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but the truth is that in the next 30 years, space will become a more well-traveled frontier with various international assets. And those assets will need monitoring and protecting: Enter, the cislunar coast guard.

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We might not be able to predict the future, but that doesn’t mean we have to be unprepared for it. This is the sentiment of Brad McAlpine, principal for space business development and strategy at Lockheed Martin. After spending 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, McAlpine believes in being prepared, not for every eventuality, but for the most likely scenarios that may come our way. For this reason, McAlpine and his team at Lockheed Martin have an eye on the future as commercial space flight and space exploration look to become more common.

“Thirty years from now, space will likely be more accessible and more important to our economy than ever, but it will still be costly and thus we will still need the backing of nation-states to explore it,” McAlpine notes. “It’s also likely that at least two entities will develop a space economy — likely split between democratic and autocratic nations — and thus we’ll need a way to monitor that activity and keep our assets safe and above board.”

These assets are likely to include several gateways and depots stationed in low earth orbit that serve as jumping off points to manufacturing facilities that sit in medium and geostationary earth orbit built to service satellites and other space assets. Moreover, as nations look to explore and extract resources from the moon, there’s also likely to be lunar stations for each set of nations. Therefore, there will need to be entities responsible for protecting Earth-moon transit and the cislunar economy and inhabitants.

McAlpine envisions those protective entities to function much like today’s earth-bound coast guards.

“In my view, by 2050, neither faction will have established a military presence on the moon, because at this point there's still an adherence to that prohibition within the Outer Space Treaty. However, above and around the moon, there may be a need for what we call space domain awareness to monitor what the other faction is doing,” says McAlpine. “And there's going to be both legal commerce and illicit commerce."

As a result, the democratic nations of the Earth will need to band together to bring in an entity to monitor the space lanes much like the coast guard monitors sea lanes on Earth, McAlpine notes.

The Tech Fueling Cislunar Coast Guards

As human space exploration ramps up, these cislunar coast guards will prove vital to the U.S. government’s ability to monitor, stabilize and expand space activity. And to be successful, they will need to be equipped with carefully developed, mature technology. This starts with developing the communications and Positional, Navigational and Timing (PNT) capabilities necessary to communicate with assets that cannot be served by Earth-based communications and navigation capabilities, such as those on the far side of the moon.

Here, Lockheed Martin is working to get a head start with its Parsec™ service, a collection of small satellites working in unison to provide a communications and PNT network to civil, commercial and global customers alike on the lunar surface.

These communication capabilities will underpin the basic Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations the coast guard will need to conduct.

“The coast guard’s first priority will be to monitor traffic, to look at what is going, what is taking off from the Earth, what is getting into orbit, and whether it’s a supply ship, legal trade or otherwise,” says McAlpine. “But that will be easier said than done because you’re going to have to monitor traffic through a variety of different means.”

Specifically, the coast guard will need to be equipped with optical capabilities, and radar or LIDAR so they can see traffic, but they’ll also need to be able to rendezvous with a variety of spacecraft, both crewed and uncrewed, to perform rescue operations or monitor goods.

“You will also need to have some kind of self-protection, because especially if there’s illicit activity, there may be a desire to blind you or to cause you to not function appropriately. So, you're going to have to have some ability to protect yourself either from a rendezvous operation that you don't want to happen, from dazzling or even a kinetic attack,” says McAlpine.

Additionally, the coast guard will need to have the ability to conduct semi-autonomous operations not dependent on resources from Earth, like the ability to build new spacecraft and refuel them as necessary, says McAlpine.

Lockheed has already begun vetting some of the technology necessary for docking and refueling in orbit, and in April of this year released the Mission Augmentation Port (MAP) interface standard, the technical specifications of a docking adapter that aims to support the creation of industry-standard technology for on-orbit servicing and mission augmentation. Using the standard, the company released open-source designs for the Augmentation System Port Interface (ASPIN) adapter, which serves as a docking port between a spacecraft and satellite augmentation vehicle (SAV), providing an electrical and data interface between the two. McAlpine hopes that these can offer a way to jumpstart the technology that the government will eventually need to conduct cislunar docking, servicing and refueling.

“ASPIN may not be the solution 30 years from now, but it will provide the steppingstone and help provide those interfaces and that common standard, so that we can conduct proximity operations, and those rendezvous operations on a regular basis and augment some of our high value assets,” says McAlpine.

With a proud heritage of supporting space exploration, including missions to the moon and Mars, Lockheed Martin is looking forward to helping to “expand human knowledge, creating sustainable technology and leveraging the discoveries that those things make to impact our everyday life here on Earth, and benefit the human race,” says McAlpine.

Laying the Groundwork for a Successful Future

McAlpine stresses that it’s crucial that the U.S. government begin the process of developing and vetting this technology now to ensure future operations are not just functional, but successful.

“We as humans have a desire for knowledge, and to understand why things are happening, and some of that can be done from Earth or in near-Earth orbit, but we will always want to explore further and once you start getting outside of the GEO belt, the distance has become too great to support anything from Earth. We’ll need assets and systems in place to support that exploration — and to do that you’ve got to start developing these technologies today and figuring out how to make them work,” says McAlpine.

Starting that process now can help agencies not just prepare for the future, but shape it for the better.

“The future is unknowable but we can always make some educated extrapolations based on how things are going and we can use that information to plan and invest in what we think will make the world a better place — that’s what Lockheed Martin is doing,” says McAlpine.

Learn more about how Lockheed Martin is laying the groundwork for the future of space exploration.

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