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US Space Command calls for investment in technology for deep space missions

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Lt. Gen. Shaw: “One of the challenges we will have as a nation is understanding the lunar environment”

WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, was in Cape Canaveral, Fla., earlier this week hoping to see NASA’s first Artemis launch. The start was washed but Shaw said he used the time there to talk with NASA executives about future collaborations.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions,” he said Aug. 31 in an address to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “DARPA Forward” conference held in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Shaw said the space security issues facing the United States and its allies cannot be solved by the military alone, especially as the DoD seeks to support operations beyond Earth orbit. “As NASA and Artemis go to the moon, one of the challenges we will have as a nation is understanding that lunar environment,” he said.

The DoD today performs space traffic control to help orbiting satellites and the International Space Station avoid collisions with other satellites or with debris. “We think we’ll probably need to partner with NASA in the future as we send astronauts into the lunar environment for extended durations to do the same thing there,” Shaw said. In cislunar space, “there are not as many people, but it is not empty of debris and objects”.

Tracking this vast region of space will be difficult due to the “tyranny of volume,” Shaw said. The area between Earth and the Moon is “a lot of volume, and it’s a lot of opportunities for us to miss things that are going on that we need to be aware of,” he said. This includes natural hazards, debris and electromagnetic interference, but also “deliberate threats”.

Shaw said new technologies will be needed to better understand the cislunar space environment, including space sensors and vehicles that can operate autonomously for long periods of time without resupply or commands from the ground.

He noted that DARPA has paved the way for technological innovations with autonomous vehicles, primarily for operations on land, at sea or in the air. “I would suggest that in no field is it more important to have cutting-edge autonomy enabled by machine learning than in space,” Shaw said.

Because of the distances, he said, “we’re going to need platforms that don’t need human operators or even machines necessarily back on Earth to tell them what’s going on and how to go about it. behave,” he added. “They’re going to have to do it autonomously, whether it’s maintaining orbits, avoiding debris, avoiding threats, or finding the optimal ways to carry out their mission.”

As technology evolves, he said, “we have to find the right balance between human surveillance and what we allow machines to do on their own…because we operate systems of more and more complex, further and further away from the planet”.

Speaking to the DARPA crowd, Shaw said, “I urge you all, when you think of autonomous platforms, to not just think of terrestrial realms, but space, how can we take this innovation and this advanced capacity and apply it to the missions that we are going to have to be able to do in the space field? »

Propulsion, refueling in space

Other technologies that will be essential for deep space are propulsion and logistical support, Shaw said. He paid tribute to DARPA for its nuclear-powered spacecraft project known as the DRAGONor Demonstration rocket for agile cislunar operations.

Range and endurance are limited by current electrical and chemical space propulsion systems, which Shaw called “the tyranny of the rocket equation”.

Right now, “I don’t see anything on the technology horizon that’s going to be a game-changer on that,” Shaw said, adding that programs like DRACO will provide incremental propulsion improvements for long-duration missions or missions that require quick changes. maneuvers at short notice.

Logistical support is another major hurdle, he said. “Since the dawn of the space age…all of our satellites and spacecraft that we send into space have taken their propellant with them and they don’t refuel.”

As the nation invests in new space platforms, Shaw said, “we need to develop with this a complementary logistics structure that allows us to refuel, maintain and extend the life and extend the abilities”.

Military organizations planning satellite missions “must use their thruster constraints in their calculations. They have to consider the delta-v budget over the lifetime of a satellite when thinking about their mission,” he said. “I would love to take that out of the equation.”