September 19, 2023

graphic of cislunar space
Trajectory design schematic for rapid response missions to and from quasi-periodic orbits in the cislunar space.

The University of Texas at Austin is collaborating with three other institutions to build the foundation for space operations to, from and throughout the Earth and moon neighborhood. This area, called the cislunar region, is an enormous, three-dimensional volume of space with many complex factors to be incorporated by mission planners and spacecraft designers.

Researchers from Purdue University, the institution leading the project, and UT Austin, Penn State and Georgia Tech, will look at basic research challenges to path planning, navigation, and control within the context of space domain awareness in cislunar space. They plan to improve the foundational understanding of pathways throughout the cislunar region, and leverage these insights to track and predict the locations of objects beyond earth’s neighborhood. The unique dynamical characteristics of the cislunar region and the associated pathways will then provide the important building blocks for autonomous spacecraft navigation, decision-making, and control responses.

The resulting tools will aid government agencies and commercial operators to successfully operate missions in cislunar space – and even into deep space – more sustainably.

This multidisciplinary and intercollegiate effort, called the Characterizing Highways and Automated Navigation in Cislunar Environment (CHANCE) project, received $4.5 million in funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) in July 2023.

Maruthi Akella, a co-principal investigator of the project and a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the Cockrell School of Engineering, is leading the research for UT Austin.

“Spacecraft motion across the cislunar region exhibits wide variability in terms of trajectory behaviors and extreme sensitivity to thrusting errors and localization uncertainty. These factors are compounded by infrequent navigational measurements, highly variable light conditions, data gaps, and long latencies for ground support due to the large distances involved,” Akella said. “Our research under the CHANCE project addresses these critical challenges. We will be describing spacecraft motion characteristics specific to various sub-regions of the cislunar space and custom-designing optimal control policies for efficient transfers to and within different parts of the cislunar space.”

Work done in recent decades has simplified the process to operate and launch satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), enabling a boom in commercial space operations. But other factors come into play farther out, where Earth’s gravity becomes less dominant.

Data from previous moon missions is also insufficient for the scale of operations expected in cislunar space.

“For Apollo, the mission was to get to the Moon, visit briefly, come back. If we want to stay, we have to know how the environment evolves over time and the other opportunities there are for return as well as move throughout the region,” said Kathleen Howell, principal investigator of the project and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. “Getting to [the Lunar] Gateway is particularly difficult because we’ll be going to an orbit that is not as familiar and has not hosted a such a facility previously for long-term operation, which is, in some ways, more challenging than landing on the Moon.”

This foundational work will also enable commercial space operators interested in a variety of activities, such as resource extraction, in-space manufacturing, and even tourism. It’s a relatively well-known process to operate and launch satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), where Earth’s gravity is the primary factor, thanks to the orbit, trajectory and mission operations tools developed in recent decades.

“This is high-impact research and we are super excited to be part of this multi-university collaboration to address some of these highly coupled and challenging cislunar astrodynamics problems,” said Akella.

Other members of the interdisciplinary CHANCE research team include co-principal investigators Kenshiro Oguri of Purdue University, Puneet Singla and Roshan Eapen of Pennsylvania State University and John A. Christian of Georgia Tech. Additional collaborators include David Arnas of Purdue University and Anton Leykin of Georgia Tech.