The voyages of extraterrestrial enterprise have begun, seeking out strange new worlds of opportunity in cislunar space, which extends from Earth to the moon.
A March symposium in Washington, D.C., called “Cislunar Space: Research for Today, Training for Tomorrow,” convened international representatives from academia, industry, and government space agencies to discuss the challenges and opportunities of developing commercial cislunar capabilities. The Universities Space Research Association, based in Columbia, held the event with George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
Interest in cislunar space is escalating, particularly in the government and commercial sectors, said Jeff Isaacson, USRA’s president.
“There have also been a lot of merging technical advances that motivate us and our interests here,” he said.
A lot of the enabling infrastructure to develop space-based commerce still needs to be developed and deployed, and that’s the first area of opportunity.
A critical component of the cislunar economy will be NASA’s crew-tended Gateway space station, which will orbit the moon and provide access to the entire lunar surface.
Construction could begin in 2025, when NASA plans to launch the station’s power propulsion element and its habitability and logistics outpost.
At the same time, NASA is partnering with industry through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative to help offset the cost of its operations, with an eye to using the moon as a steppingstone to human exploration of Mars.
“These companies are getting customers for the science that is on these missions,” explained Bob Cabana, associate administrator for NASA. “We’re developing a commercial market.”
NASA’s first two CLPS missions are expected later this year, in partnership with Astrobotic of Pittsburgh and Intuitive Machines in Houston.
“We are pioneering end-to-end delivery capability on our robotic lunar landers with 16 customers from seven countries on board the first mission,” said Dan Hendrickson, Astrobotic’s vice president of business development.
Customers include Carnegie Mellon University, which is sending the first university-built rover to the moon. The payload on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander contains an array of scientific instruments and even personal mementos from individuals.
Badri Younes, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation, said space commerce promises a lot of potential job opportunities.
The Space Foundation’s 2022 Report estimated the size and market of the space industry at around $460 billion in 2021, an increase of 19 percent over 2020.
“It’s estimated to be around $640 billion by 2026,” Younes said. “We’re talking about 90 percent of activity that is commercialized. We’re seeing a growing, vibrant commercial sector.”
Of course, increased cislunar activity is eventually going to lead to congestion.
Rather than build its own capabilities to manage congestion, NASA has decided to commercialize aspects of space communication and navigation systems where there is a market, Younes said.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel will serve as an important partner in this planning, providing technical expertise for NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative and leading the international Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium.
It also hosts the Cislunar Security Conference, providing a forum for national discussions on technology, policy, and strategy implications for national security that will arise from an expected increase in cislunar activity.
The work ahead
Emma Rainey, senior scientist at APL, acknowledged that space situational awareness, communications, and position, navigation and timing systems don’t yet exist at the level of sophistication necessary for planned future missions.
“We are heavily involved in developing cislunar networking standards that could support the interoperable communications networks we’ll need,” Rainey said.
APL is working with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt on its LunaNet architecture for communications and PNT.
“We’re developing a prototype for a networking router for use in cislunar space, and planning a technology demonstration in the near future,” she said.
A huge number of basic technologies still need further research, including remote sensing technologies, Rainey said.
Still, overcoming the technical aspects of commercial space activity might be more straightforward than the legal aspects that haven’t yet been ironed out.
“Policy space is much more complex, especially in places that don’t have any jurisdictional frameworks except for the Artemis Accords and the Outer Space Treaty,” said Vint Cerf, vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google.
Questions of mine claims, ownership, operational interference and other sticky subjects will need clear ground rules.
USRA, with its diverse collection of participants, has an opportunity to help people make their way through this sooner rather than later, he suggested.
“Policy and jurisdictional and governance issues arising out of the commercialization of space will hit us in less than two years,” Cerf said. “I don’t think we’re fully prepared for that.”
But when we are, the sky is literally the lower limit.
“There is a direct mapping of what we are doing on the moon that allows us to carry that technology forward to Mars,” Cabana said. “We want to show that there are commercial benefits to what we do in space.”