Credit: ISRO

The upcoming Moon rush by government and private groups offers the prospect of “lunar traffic jams.”

However, at this moment in time, nobody is keeping a tracking eye on how many artificial objects are already up there, or where they are at any given moment. Without a way to keep track of traffic, the orbital space surrounding the Moon may grow crowded.

That’s the assessment of University of Arizona researchers. They have been awarded $7.5 million in funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate to get a handle on the issue.

Roberto Furfaro (left) of the Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering and Vishnu Reddy of the Department of Planetary Sciences at the Biosphere 2 Space Domain Awareness Observatory.

Benjamin Seibert, Space Control Mission Area lead for the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, explains that capabilities to detect, track and catalog objects from the Earth to the Moon and beyond enable “freedom of navigation” critical to civil and commercial use of space.

Detect, characterize and track

Principal investigators Roberto Furfaro, professor of systems and industrial engineering, and Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor in the College of Science’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, are developing ways to detect, characterize and track objects in cislunar space, or the space between Earth and the Moon.

Furfaro and Reddy estimate there are dozens of payloads orbiting the Moon at present. But given a salvo of lunar probes in the offing, congestion is an increasing concern.

“Re-booting” the Moon involves multiple nations. Credit: CNSA


According to a university statement, the UArizona team will create cyber-infrastructure to characterize and identify the objects, paving the way for a well-organized path to the Moon. While they are not trying to increase the efficiency of “roads,” they are studying the early sources of traffic to better inform decision making before the roads even exist.

Suite of equipment

The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory use dedicated sensors at the University of Arizona Biosphere 2 research facility in Oracle, Arizona to characterize objects in space. Their suite of equipment includes several telescopes dedicated to space domain awareness.

University of Arizona Biosphere 2 research facility in Oracle, Arizona.
Credit: University of Arizona

Tracking human-made objects in cislunar space, rather than natural objects such as asteroids, comes with its own challenges. Objects in cislunar space are harder to see, not only because they’re farther away than objects orbiting Earth, but because they can be lost in the Moon’s glare, according to the UArizona statement.

As the work moves into high-gear, Reddy is concentrating on detection and tracking. Furfaro will create methods to analyze and catalog the data.

The team will also partner with future missions sending objects into cislunar orbit, so new objects can be tracked and cataloged from the start of their journeys.

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