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UA nets $7.5 million to track lunar satellite traffic

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks tens of thousands of artificial satellites orbiting Earth. But no such group monitors traffic around the moon, or in the cislunar space space in between.

Now University of Arizona has received a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate to do exactly that.

"If we're going to be operating around the world, it would be good if we had a way to keep track of where everything is," said co-principal-investigator Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor in the UA College of Science's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Hear Vishnu Reddy's interview with Host Steve Goldstein on The Show

space-debris-show-sg-20220225.mp3

Roberto Furfaro, professor of systems and industrial engineering, is also principal investigator on the project.

The next eight years could see dozens of orbiters, CubeSats, rovers and crewed missions heading moonward. Many are not designed to send position data back to Earth.

What's more, objects orbiting the moon, which lacks an atmosphere, have no natural way to decay. And anything in cislunar space tends to move around unless it has thrusters to counter the dynamic forces in play there.  

Reddy says the XGEO Space Domain Awareness program will track and catalog such objects to avoid accidents and detect problems that might otherwise go unreported and unobserved.

"The goal is to first scan the skies, find the objects, make a catalog and maintain the catalog. The second part of the project is to support campaigns. So if Artemis 1 going to the moon, we support it with optical and radio frequency tracking," he said.

But spotting the relatively tiny, dim objects won’t be easy.

“What we're trying to do is to try and find the light from a firefly next to a floodlight. It is that much of a contrast,” he said.

Observing the objects when the moon isn't full won't help, since the craft will undergo the same phases of light and shadow as the moon. 

The program will use six telescopes located at Biosphere 2. 

“We have purpose-built, dedicated telescopes that are better at doing this than regular astronomical telescopes. So we have a facility where we have six telescopes. It was built by students, and it's being operated by students,” said Reddy. 

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.