AFRL announces two new space flight experiments
KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — In its effort to bring the most innovative technology to U.S. warfighters, the Space Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) held a competition to select the next set of flight experiments. The Director of the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate, Col. Eric Felt, announced that the two winning concepts are Precise and CHPS, or the Cislunar Highway Patrol System.
“The competition was fierce, and I offer my congratulations to all 27 teams that submitted proposals,” said Felt. “The incredible ideas and hard work that went into maturing the concepts further solidified my belief that AFRL’s “secret sauce” is our incredibly talented workforce.”
The Precise flight experiment represents a new orbital regime for AFRL in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO), while the second project, CHPS, will experiment with Space Domain Awareness beyond Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) all the way out to the moon.
“The Precise experiment builds on more than 50 years of AFRL investigation into the physics of the upper atmosphere,” said Dr. Rachel Hock-Mysliwiec, program manager. “It will examine ionization processes in the ionosphere, the region of ionized gas between 90 and 600 km altitude, which impacts radio propagation used by warfighters for communications and navigation.”
The experiment will use sensitive satellite instruments and radio waves to examine changes in the ionosphere resulting from different compositions of ion source gasses.
“This understanding could be used in the future, to mitigate natural ionospheric impacts to warfighter systems such as satellite communications and GPS,” Hock-Mysliwiec said.
The six-month long competition, called Space Warfighting Operationally Resilient Demonstrations (SWORD) required teams to develop concepts that showed both significant technical merit and military utility.
On the other end of the orbital spectrum, the CHPS experiment will explore concepts for object detection and tracking between GEO, where most U.S. Space Force satellites are flown, and the moon.
“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,” said Capt David Buehler, program manager. “This increase in activity will require
greater domain awareness, which is what CHPS is trying to address,” We want to be there providing safety of flight when the U.S. puts boots back on the moon.” The CHPS experiment will investigate sensing technologies and algorithms for object tracking.
“We need to address really basic things that start to break down beyond GEO, like how do we even write down a trajectory. The current space catalog uses Two-Line Elements, or TLEs, which simply do not capture the complex orbital dynamics and have almost no meaning in cislunar space,” said Dr. Jaime Stearns, principal investigator. “CHPS will also explore other technologies required to support the mission like communication and navigation.
“CHPS is just the first step to help us understand domain awareness in cislunar space. 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,” Felt said.
A rigorous “lean startup” accelerator process, first developed in Silicon Valley, was used by Air Force engineers and scientists for customer discovery, product iteration, and cost analysis toward developing a minimum viable product. Dr. Lawrence “Robbie” Robertson, AFRL Chief Space Experimentalist, served as a panelist and was faced with a tough job of guiding a senior leadership panel with selecting the winning programs. “We had to really ask ourselves, which of these projects has the potential to deliver the biggest impact to our fighting forces?” said Robertson. “And because of the number of impressive ideas, we decided to make SWORD an annual event.”
The next steps for project leaders will be to submit budgets, program timelines, and specific technical objectives, with an expected start date of Oct. 1.
“I look forward to working with the teams as they mature their technologies,” Felt said. “I am confident and excited that AFRL can and will out-innovate our competitors and lead the U.S. Space Force into these new domains.”