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Autonomous Space Navigation through Cislunar Space

On November 3, venture capital firm SpaceFund announced that it has invested in the start-up company Rhea Space Activity, or RSA, which is producing a cutting-edge satellite navigation technology that might just transform the warfighting terrain beyond Earth orbit. The startup caught the Pentagon’s eye back in 2020, and now it looks like private investors are jumping on board, too.

For decades, the Department of Defense (DoD) has tracked satellites orbiting Earth, providing the most comprehensive open-source data on their positions and trajectories in the world. Beyond terrestrial orbits, however, the DoD remains blind. That’s where RSA comes in.

Its shiniest product is the Jervis Autonomous Module, or JAM, an artificial intelligence that will allow spacecraft to autonomously navigate cislunar space, the no man’s land between Earth and the Moon.

Once a spacecraft ventures beyond geostationary orbit, it can no longer navigate using GPS and must instead perform two-way ranging with a ground station on Earth. Cislunar travel presents extra challenges because overlapping gravitational tugs from the Earth, Moon, and Sun make the environment unpredictable. As a result, cislunar orbits do not conform to the neat circular or elliptical orbits we are used to near Earth.

The JAM module, once completed, would enable spacecraft to traverse through cislunar space without GPS or ranging with ground stations.

Cislunar
Meagan Crawford

Meagan Crawford, co-founder and managing partner of SpaceFund, said JAM is “vital for both national security and the future of the commercial sector as companies start to target destinations beyond Earth orbit. RSA has the right team and domain knowledge to provide these highly valuable technologies to a rapidly growing number of customers.

Named after the late scholar and geographic engineer Major Thomas Best Jervis, JAM is based on a proprietary deep space navigation algorithm that enabled NASA’s Deep Impact mission to autonomously steer a projectile into a comet at a speed of 22,000 mph, resulting in an explosion equivalent to 4.8 tons of TNT. It is being developed in partnership with Purdue University and Saber Astronautics.

Cislunar space
Shawn Usman

In addition to reducing the cost, number of operators, and frequency of communications required to maneuver in Cislunar space, RSA founder Shawn Usman said JAM will offer spacecraft a stealth capability. “This is similar to nuclear submarines that navigate underwater for months without contact, only to surface at opportune times,” he said. “Satellites equipped with JAM can operate autonomously for months in a radio-silent manner in a region of space that is currently unmonitored.

RSA says JAM may be operational as soon as 2024. The module is useless without spacecraft to wield it, though, and a constellation of autonomous surveillance satellites is being developed for just that purpose. The first satellite, called JERVIS-1, is planned to enter a resonant retrograde orbit by 2024 to track objects in both Cislunar and geostationary orbits.

Cislunar space has historically been NASA’s domain, but the Defense Department recently took interest. Last year, the Air Force awarded RSA a Phase One Small Business Innovation Research program contract to develop an all-encompassing lunar intelligence, or LUNINT, capability. That contract was extended to Phase Two last month, and in June the Air Force Research Laboratory published a report suggesting that military officials should prepare for cislunar space.

The Moon is quickly becoming a focal point for commercial and government activity, with NASA’s Artemis mission aiming to put boots on the ground by 2025, a Chinese rover exploring the far side of the Moon, and Russia and China planning a lunar research station. Without the ability to track foreign assets in cislunar space, the DoD fears that critical infrastructure in geostationary orbit may be left vulnerable.

For the U.S. and its allies, radar and laser-ranging tracking sites aren’t powerful enough to precisely locate objects in cislunar space. Telescopes and antennae are better, but may need to be placed on the lunar surface or in stable cislunar orbits to keep an eye on objects across the vast expanse of space between the Moon and Earth. In theory, at least, JAM could provide the solution.

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