Space Force plans to send a patrol probe out past the moon

The U.S. military is planning to extend its reach in space to one day patrol the area around the moon.

In a new video, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) revealed the U.S. military's big plans for its future work in space. These plans, the video showed, include extending space awareness capabilities beyond geostationary orbit with the help of a new satellite called the Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS). This is a moon-patrolling probe that the military plans to launch to cislunar space, a vast area around Earth that stretches out past the moon's orbit.

"Until now, the United States space mission extended 22,000 miles [35,400 kilometers] above Earth," the video states, referring to the altitude at which geostationary satellites fly. "That was then; this is now."

"The Air Force Research Laboratory is extending that range by 10 times and the operations area of the United States by 1,000 times, taking our reach to the far side of the moon into cislunar space, far beyond the crowd," the video's narrator continued.

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A visualization of the U.S. military's CHPS satellite that will monitor cislunar space. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory)

CHPS is "a spaceflight experiment designed to demonstrate foundational space domain awareness capabilities in the cislunar regime," according to the AFRL website. The lab will carry out the satellite's development as part of the CHPS program. The probe will then be acquired by the U.S. Space Force to be used by the U.S. Space Command, which oversees military activity and operations in space. 

So, what will the U.S. military do with a satellite way out past the moon? 

"It's the first step for them to be able to know what’s going on in cislunar space and then identify any potential threats to US activities," Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, told Ars Technica about the program. Weeden specified that he does not think the probe will be used to respond to threats in space but rather for observational purposes. 

AFRL's video points to efforts by agencies like NASA to return to the moon's surface and other "interplanetary destinations," as part of the impetus to stretch the military's surveillance reach to cislunar space. The video states that these missions to the moon and beyond will be "increasing space traffic to the moon many times over the coming decades."

CHPS "will bypass thousands of government and commercial satellites as it makes its way to a rarely-before-visited domain 272,000 miles [438,000 km] from Earth," the video adds. 

"The U.S. Space Force will ensure the peaceful development of space, keeping our missions safe and secure in these distant frontiers," the video states. "The responsible use of space and unfettered access to space domain awareness ensures collision avoidance, on-orbit logistics, communication, navigation and maneuvering, all critical to the United States and allied space commerce, science and exploration."

The AFRL will issue a request for prototype proposals for the CHPS satellite on March 21 and reveal whose proposal won the contract in July, the lab shared in an emailed statement. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.