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Air Force Research Lab project will help ensure return to the moon is safe

By THOMAS GNAU | Dayton Daily News | Published: November 4, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — As NASA sets a return to the moon in its sights, the Air Force Research Lab, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will help ensure the way there is safe.

The Space Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) held a competition to select a set of flight experiments, and one of those experiments will involve tracking objects between the Earth and the moon.

That project is called "CHPS" for the "Cislunar Highway Patrol System," said the director of the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate, Col. Eric Felt.

"The debris environment in that area is poorly understood and would benefit from a system like CHPS," Capt. David Buehler, CHPS program manager, said in an email to the Dayton Daily News Tuesday.

U.S. Space Command has an area of responsibility starting at 100 kilometers from Earth "and extending to infinity," he noted.

"As U.S. interests extend to the moon, the 'protect and defend' mission of the Space Force will need to grow with them. One of those U.S. interests is space exploration, and we would like to work with NASA to aid in safety of flight for their planned exploration missions," he said.

The CHPS experiment will explore concepts for detecting and tracking objects between Earth's orbit and "cislunar space."

"The 21st century space economy is expanding beyond traditional orbits out to the moon with commercial companies seeking to harvest resources, and NASA and other countries returning to the moon," Buehler said in an AFRL release.

That increase in the number of objects in space will require greater domain awareness, which is what CHPS is trying to address, AFRL said. The goal is to ensure safety of flight when the United States again puts boots back on the moon.

The project will be led by AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico.

"As far as the role of (Wright-Patterson), it is early in the program, but we anticipate regular coordination with experts at AFRL headquarters, on multiple aspects of the program," Buehler said.

As an early-stage program, the project has not joined with any particular contractor or set of contractors yet, he added. The Air Force is drafting a "request for information" — or an invitation to private companies to offer their input — and will release that by year's end, he said.

"CHPS is just the first step to help us understand domain awareness in cislunar space," Felt said. "We are also starting to explore basic science and technology in autonomy, on-orbit processing and logistics in all orbits, which become even more important the further you are from the Earth."

CHPS will also explore other technologies required to support the mission like communication and navigation, AFRL said.

Dr. Lawrence "Robbie" Robertson, AFRL chief space experimentalist, served as a panelist and was faced with the job of guiding a senior leadership panel with selecting the winning experiments to pursue.

"We had to really ask ourselves, which of these projects has the potential to deliver the biggest impact to our fighting forces?" said Robertson.

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