This week, we look at the Air Force Research Laboratory's plans for its new Cislunar Highway Patrol System.

Cislunar Patrol: Enhancing the U.S. Military’s Detection of Objects in Space


Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… this week, with more and more countries and commercial groups turning their sites on space activities, we’ll be taking a look at what the Air Force Research Laboratory has planned for extending the sensory range of the United States Space Force. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at 1) the problems stemming from an increasingly-crowded space around Earth, 2) the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, what it is, and what it will do, and 3) the importance of extending Earth’s sensory capabilities to facilitate patrolling the area around Earth’s Moon.

Quote of the Week

“The time is rapidly approaching when space’s value to security on Earth will be matched by the need to secure the economic activity occurring within Earth orbit.”

–  Clementine G. Starling


Before we dive into things, our ongoing coverage of the situation in Ukraine here at The Debrief includes Tim McMillan’s ongoing reporting, which includes an update on why some analysts call the current conflict a War Putin “Cannot Lose”, and why the worst is yet to come, particularly on account of the fact that by some measures, the conflict is nearing total war. In other news, we also take a historical look at The “Moscow Signal” where for decades the Soviet Union admitted it had been blasting the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwaves, and in science news, Simon Spichak reports on scientists who have created a biohybrid fish out of human cardiac muscle cells.

Meanwhile, in video news, our very own Chrissy Newton recently sat down with Diana Walsh Pasulka, author of American Cosmic, for a discussion about belief systems and their relationship to a number of issues, including unidentified aerial phenomena. Elsewhere, our resident gear-heads Stefan Gearhart and Josh Rutledge give us an update on six decades of space telescopes in our latest edition of The Debrief’s Tech Talk. You can find all our videos and other content for your viewing pleasure on our YouTube Channel.

With all of the housekeeping out of the way, it’s time for us to turn our attention to why the Air Force Research Laboratory is talking about patrolling the Moon in the years ahead… and how they plan to go about it.


Space is Becoming a Crowded Place

Within the last few years, the prospects for renewed efforts toward space exploration have received a boost from commercial companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others.

However, as the events of recent days have shown, some doubts have been cast over the ongoing cooperative efforts between government space programs, with the aftershock of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine extending all the way to the International Space Station, and new tensions mounting between NASA and its partners with the Russian space agency Roscosmos.

With increasing concerns over international relations and how that might affect space exploration, as well as the ever-increasing movement of commercial operations into orbit, the necessity for maintaining order in the Final Frontier has become more apparent now than at any time before.

And according to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the job of patrolling locations in space that include areas as distant as Earth’s Moon may soon fall on the American military and its space mission.


The Cislunar Highway Patrol System

“Until now, the United States space mission extended 22,000 miles above Earth,” says a portion of a video recently released by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

“That was then, this is now,” the video says, announcing that “The Air Force Research Laboratory is extending that range by 10 times, and the operations area of the United States by 1,000 times.”

Enter the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS), which the USAF characterizes as “a spaceflight experiment” that it says will be capable of demonstrating space domain awareness capabilities in the space between Earth and the Moon.

Designed by the Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, the CHPS is built to be capable of increasing the U.S.’s ability to spot and track artificial objects in space that are operating at the distance between the Earth and Moon, or even greater in some cases with a total range of around 239,228 miles (385,000 km). Presently, most sensors in use by the United States Space Force are capable of tracking satellites or other space objects at distances no further than about 22,370 miles (36,000 km). This means that detection with existing technologies is limited to objects in geosynchronous orbit.

Artist’s concept of the CHPS in orbit around the Moon (Credit: AFRL).

CHPS will greatly extend those capabilities, allowing for the detection of a range of objects that could result from missions carried out in space within the vicinity of the moon that may include rocket bodies or other unknown objects. This, along with providing updates on the position of known spacecraft operating around the Moon in positions that can be difficult to monitor from Earth with existing technologies.


Extending the Space Force’s Sensing Capabilities

According to a statement at the AFRL website, the CHPS will do more than just enhance the United States Space Force’s sensory reach; it will also “provide the DoD with experience operating in the complicated gravitational environment that exists in specific areas between the Earth and the Moon, and help mature technology required to communicate and navigate near the Moon.”

If current plans remain in place, the CHPS is set to launch in 2025, and will be placed in a stable point between our planet and the Moon, from which it will begin monitoring space traffic between these locations. According to the AFRL, during its initial stages of operation, the CHPS will use an array of both wide and narrow field sensors, which will help the Space Force “discover and maintain custody of objects operating in this region.”

If anything, the capabilities that the CHPS will provide the Space Force in the coming years say a lot about the U.S. military’s current limitations in outer space, especially with relation to its ability to detect unknown objects, whether they are operated by the space agencies of countries like Russia or China (who have expressed plans to collaborate on such a system of their own), or if they are unknown objects of an entirely different kind.

(Credit: NASA)

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, was recently quoted by Ars Technica noting that the innovative system “would definitely exploit a gap in [the Space Force’s] current space domain awareness,” although adding that he thinks they “are far more concerned about that than any actual threats in cislunar space because the US doesn’t have any military assets in cislunar space right now.”

Given the current questions that linger about future cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in outer space, now would seem to be an ideal time to begin laying the foundation for enhancing our sensory awareness and abilities in space, whether between Earth and the Moon, or even much further beyond.

That wraps up this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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