In 2019, the United States created a new military branch called the Space Force to oversee the area as a potential theatre of war, and to “protect US and allied interests in space”.
The US Air Force Research Laboratory has announced an internal competition for new projects regarding potential military operations in space. Ideas about how to explore very low Earth orbits alongside offers to operate in the cislunar space between Earth and the Moon are being introduced amid the contest, which was announced amid “growing concerns about future competition” with potential adversaries.
Head of the Space Vehicles Directorate Colonel Eric Felt spoke about the competition during a Space News webinar. He noted that he had four potential project teams and the winner could be announced in July to receive funding for demonstrations.
“The best payoff is coming from things that we’re not currently doing in space today”, Felt said during the webinar.
He didn’t reveal much about the four candidates, but did outline that one of them is working on possible uses of “vLEO”, or very Low Earth Orbits of around 200 to 300 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. The project may offer better technology for satellites to operate in those altitudes, since the propulsion systems they currently need to do that are heavy and expensive.
Another project involves working in the area between the Geosynchronous Orbit and the Moon, which is called cislunar space and is considered to be a future area of potential competition with China.
“We in AFRL are working on technologies to expand space domain awareness above the GEO belt — so from the GEO belt all the way to the Moon and even a little bit beyond. It’s what we call the xGEO, or the cislunar, area of operations. And as commercial people move there, and our adversaries move there, that becomes an area where we need to know what’s going on up there”, Felt noted.
Additionally, there is the so-called XVI project. It’s goal is to test is to test placing a tactical data link (Link 16) in low Earth orbit that could potentially expand connectivity across domains. At present, such connectivity isn’t strong enough to be used in military communication in the GEO belt. A prototype of XVI could be tested next March, according to Felt.
The flow of potential military projects in space comes as the US is actively engaging in a space race, with the latest achievement being SpaceX’s successful launch of the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station. At the same time, Washington’s potential rival, China, has announced its first mission to Mars and ambitions to place a space station on the Moon by 2022, after successfully landing a robotic rover on the dark side in January 2019.