WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory chose Colorado-based Advanced Space to build a spacecraft that will observe, detect and track objects around the moon.
The space services company won a $76 million contract for AFRL’s Oracle program, which will develop sensing, navigation and communication technology along with algorithms that could support situational awareness in cislunar orbit. Cislunar refers to the area between geostationary orbit — about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface — and the moon.
“Our primary goals for the program are to advance techniques to detect previously unknown objects through search and discovery, to detect small or distant objects and to study spacecraft positioning and navigation in the [beyond GEO] realm,” Oracle’s principal investigator James Frith said in a Nov. 10 statement.
The contract for Oracle, which was previously named the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, comes amid a growing interest in the cislunar environment and increasing concerns about potential deep-space threats from adversaries like China. In response, AFRL and other stakeholders are crafting a classified roadmap that lays out the cislunar capabilities various space agencies are pursuing.
AFRL expects Oracle to launch in 2025 and have a two-year mission life. Along with tracking and detecting new objects, the satellite will inform a separate AFRL effort to develop a green propellant to power space vehicles. The satellite will carry a refueling port for the Advanced Spacecraft Energetic Non-Toxic program.
“While there are no plans yet to refuel Oracle, AFRL wants to encourage civil and commercial development of on-orbit refueling services,” according to the statement.
Oracle is one of several AFRL programs focused on operations beyond GEO. Other efforts include the Defense Deep Space Sentinel Pathfinder, which will demonstrate the use of small satellites for a range of cislunar missions, and Autonomy Demonstrations and Orbital Experiments, a portfolio of satellites focused on cislunar domain awareness and logistics.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.