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Episode 22: TrackIng Objects in Cislunar Space

By Dr. Marcie Zaharee
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Show Notes

How Kaitlyn Raub, an early career researcher at MITRE, has been focusing on the study and tracking of objects in the Cislunar space, and the benefits of her work to MITRE and our sponsors.


Full text of transcript

JFK: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Three, two, one, zero, all engine running. Liftoff, we have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour, liftoff on Apollo 11.

Marcie: As a result of JFK’s speech, the 1960s was a decade of significant progress in space exploration for the United States. In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit earth and the Apollo program successfully landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. Humans are now returning to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Starting with the Artemis missions, which aim to establish the first lunar base camp and orbiting lunar space station.

 (intro music)

Marcie: Hello and welcome to MITRE’s tech futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Marcie Zaharee. I’m a project leader in MITRE’s independent research and development program. At MITRE, we offer unique vantage points, and objective insights that we share in the public interest. And in this podcast series, we showcase emerging technologies that will affect the government and our nation in the future.

Before we begin. I would like to mention that this podcast was made possible by MITRE’s independent research and development program, which funds projects that address the critical problems and priorities of our government sponsors. We do that through applied research that reflects our sponsors near mid and far term research needs.

Now without further ado I bring you MITRE’s tech futures podcast episode number 22 tracking objects in the Cislunar space.

Marcie: Today, we’re going to be talking about how Kaitlyn Raub, a researcher here at MITRE has been focusing on the study and tracking of objects in the Cislunar space. Cislunar refers to the region between earth and the moon and includes the orbits and trajectories of various objects such as satellites, debris, and spacecraft. As space exploration and commercialization continue to grow, understanding and mapping the Cislunar space becomes increasingly important for both national security and scientific purposes.

Marcie: Before we begin our interview with Kaitlin let’s first hear from Dr. Gabriel Hedrick, an aerospace engineer at MITRE on why the recent interest in Cislunar activities from MITRE sponsors.

Gabrielle: A lot of the discussions right now are around understanding lunar and cislunar orbits that are very unusual and trying to figure out how we can first observe that space. Where do we need our sensors? And second, how do we understand where objects are and can track them and keep custody of them. And it’s important, especially to our space work sponsors, because that’s what they care about, is tracking, custody, maintenance.

Marcie: Next we’ll talk with Kaitlyn, Raub a, senior space systems engineer who began tracking the James Webb space telescope since its launch in December of 2021, as well as the Orion spacecraft and GEO tail satellite. Here’s Kaitlyn explaining the Cislunar environment.

Kaitlyn: There’s a bunch of different definitions for what Cislunar can be. I think that the easiest way to think about it is it’s basically anything outside of the GeoBelt. Which is about 36,000 kilometers off the surface of earth.

Outside of the GEO belt, but still contained within the earth’s gravity or within the moon’s gravity. So still interacting with those two bodies. It’s a huge volume of space. It extends out to about 10 times further out than the geo belt, which is traditionally what the air and Space Force would consider deep space.

Not only is the volume of space that objects can be in going to be more massive, but the objects are also going to be further. So, they’re harder to detect and sense with the typical sensors that we’re using. You’re also getting away from two body classical mechanic.

Marcie: In classical mechanics, the two-body problem is to predict the motion of two massive objects, which are abstractly viewed as point particles. The two- body problem is important because it helps us understand how planets move around stars and how moons move around planets. Scientists have studied this problem for a long time, and they have found ways to solve it using math. However, Kaitlyn explains when there are three or more objects the problem becomes more complex.

Kaitlyn: We’re getting into weird orbits that are not the typical circular or elliptical orbits that we’re used to for LEO through GEO orbits.

Now they’re going to be asymmetrical, chaotic, hard to predict, hard to model. Just because now, you have the interaction of three large bodies, which is the sun, the earth, and the moon. And when you take all of the gravity of them interacting with each other, it’s going to just create this different type of gravity surface that objects interact with.

Nearer orbits. If you’re in the low Earth orbit or if you’re in the geosynchronous belt the only gravity that you really need to worry about is Earth. And so, your orbits are just like a nice circle or some sort of an ellipse just because it’s, the sun and the moon’s gravity is not really playing a key part.

But now that you’re near the moon or you’re out, in this three-body system it’s literally like the gravitational service that these objects will interact with. It creates things. It’s called Lagrange points, which are these wells or peaks of gravitational potential.

Marcie: LaGrange points are special locations in space where the gravitational forces of two large objects like the earth and the moon create a stable area for a smaller object to stay in place. Imagine it like a cosmic game of tug of war where the forces balance each other out so the smaller object doesn’t get pulled away. There are five LaGrange points, and they are uniquely named L one L two L three. L four and L five. These points can be used by spacecraft as parking spots to remain in a fixed position with minimal fuel consumption. Kaitlyn had tracked the James Webb space telescope. Well, that sets in LaGrange point 2 to get a clear view of the universe without interference from the earth or moon. L two is ideal for astronomy because a spacecraft is close enough to readily communicate with the earth and can keep the sun. Earth and moon behind it for solar power.

 So far, we’ve explained Cislunar discussed the two-body problem and LaGrange points. But how do all these things relate to Caitlin’s work? Here’s Kaitlyn talking about her research.

Kaitlyn: The point of the work was to try and fill capability gaps that we identified for Cislunar space. The work started its formation around the time when the James Webb Space Telescope was launched at the end of 2021.

We wanted to be able to track it and take images of the James Webb Space Telescope using the MITRE Telescope Network and quickly realized that the methods that we’re using for tracking, imaging, and detecting LEO or GEO objects don’t work for cislunar ones. So that realization was really the way forward and the catalyst for all of the resulting cislunar work and This is why we got funded for a research project.

We focused on three main initial areas that we decided were the entry level of what we wanted to be able to establish within MITRE.

The first part of it was we want to be able to consistently track image and detect, CISlunar objects. We created this data set of real-world objects to be able to use with the modeling and simulation side. Some of the objects that we got to observe included the James Webb Space Telescope, which is about 1.5 million kilometers out from Earth. It’s about three times further away from the moon. We also observed the Orion spacecraft, which was part of the Artemis mission at the end of 2021. We also looked at the test telescope or the transiting exoplanet survey satellite which stares at nearby stars, and it looks for dips in stars brightness, which would signal to us that there’s potentially an object blocking the light and therefore it’s maybe the last object that we got to look at was called Geotail and it’s out in cislunar space staring down at Earth.

The second part of the work was taking the common mod and sim tools that we use within MITRE, specifically the ones that we’re using within the space modeling and analysis community and upgrading them for cislunar capability the orbital dynamics is a lot more complicated you have external effects that we typically don’t need to worry about, like radiation pressure from the sun or the gravity from the moon. And this makes our typical modeling inadequate for cislunar objects. In order to alleviate these and for us to be able to do cislunar modeling we added new algorithms to our tools that not only appropriately model spacecraft in this area of space but allow us to do the same type of efforts and the same type of telescope tracking that we normally would for LEO and GEO objects.

The third part of this work we wanted to see what other disciplines of astronomy and in the industry and see what they’re doing successfully and see how it can be reapplied for cislunar objects. And I personally think one of the biggest parts of the work because it was pretty much the only reason that the observing campaign and the observing process was successful. We looked at what the asteroid community and the planetary defense industry does in order to find asteroids and how they’re able to find them, detect them, and maintain them. These methods that we found are literally now permanently in our observing procedure. And I think that was something that was important. You don’t always need to reinvent new procedures or come up with something brand new. There’s so much work that has a lot of overlap. So, I was really pleased with that. We were able to find stuff from the planetary defense industry and change it and use those types of techniques that are successful for asteroids and be able to use them for cislunar objects.

Basically, we provided MITRE with a new way to consistently track, detect, and image the center objects. We provided MITRE with a set of real-world data to use. We upgraded our mod and sim tools to be able to handle cislunar objects. And we were able to incorporate methods from other disciplines of the industry to make this work happen.

Marcie: I was curious about what made Kaitlyn’s research different from other companies who are researching the CISlunar environment, and this is what she said.

Kaitlyn: I think that what makes my research unique is that typically from the conferences that I’ve attended and from the publications that I’ve seen most of the focus is on the modeling and simulation portion of it where equally as important, you need to be able to predict spacecraft motion.

A lot of what we do for sponsor work is mod and sim work. However, the basis of everything is also relying on space domain awareness, SDA, which is the tracking, sensing, and custody of objects. I have not seen a lot of work, if any. I can probably only name one or two other individuals that have been working the SDA portion of Cislunar, and so I think that’s where it’s unique. Most of the work is how do you model it. How do you do predicting? But there just hasn’t been a whole lot of hands-on work done with how you even use the same hardware that we are traditionally using in order to find these new objects.

Marcie: Kaitlyn wrote a paper and shared her findings at a digital poster presentation at the advanced Maui optical and space surveillance technologies known as Amos conference. And was subsequently asked to be on a panel at the 2023 American Institute of aeronautics and astronautics known as AIAA their ascend CISlunar round table. The panel consisted of AIAA members from MITRE. Aerospace JPL, Johns Hopkins, Draper, and MIT Lincoln labs. In addition to sharing her research, Kaitlyn was asked about the role of federally funded research and development centers and university affiliated research centers known as FFRDCS and UARCs in space exploration. Here’s what she said.

Kaitlyn: The whole point was how federally funded research and development centers as well as the UARCs, important for establishing the future of CISlunar or the future of, space travel and space in general. one of the main things that I was focusing on during that panel session was, to really emphasize that miter acts as the connectors between government and commercial. And I think that’s why it’s important to have these types of panel sessions and these interactions with, people at the conference.

Marcie: For those of you who are not aware of what AIAA is here’s Dr. Leslie Weitz, a chief scientist in automation evolution at MITRE and the chief of the technical activities division at AIAA explaining the importance of AIAA to MITRE and our work

Lesley: AIAA is the world’s largest aerospace professional society. So it is a significant organization, and it was great for Kaitlyn to be able to go and be on a panel and bring some visibility to her work at MITRE, but also MITRE as an organization is that we do so much great networking at these conferences meeting folks beyond just our immediate sponsors that are working in the same space, or even adjacent spaces where we might get new ideas that we could apply to our work. So, I think there’s huge value in participating in these forums. And I was really glad to see Kaitlyn as an early career professional at MITRE be able to do that.

Marcie: I asked Derek Ho a MITRE space engineering principle. who has been working in space control and surveillance since 1985, about the importance of Kaitlyn’s research to MITRE sponsors.

Derek: there’s a planetary defense network that NASA uses to try to be aware of asteroids in orbit. And that is, supreme capability. However, NASA depends on some exquisite instruments in order to do that for a handful of objects. . 7, 8 meter telescopes are not cheap. We’re looking for ways that we can maintain awareness of things that go up there that could pose a risk using much less expensive instruments that could be deployed globally, that could be afforded by our allies who don’t necessarily have the kind of economy that the U. S. has or that could be commercially viable Because if we’re going to transition to more of a commercial capability it’s got to be something that makes business sense to commerce businesses don’t thrive when their expenses exceed their revenue.

Marcie: With NASA’s new focus on returning to the moon. There’s a need to build the capability to detect and track objects or debris that may threaten future missions in CISlunar space. So, I asked Derek if there was a sense of urgency to conduct this type of research.

Derek: We frame the problem in three timeframes. There’s fight tonight, fight tomorrow, and fight future.

not a what we call fight tonight problem, meaning that, there’s not an issue right now, but given the pace of government procurement, we need to start solving that problem now because the government won’t buy what they need for another 10 or 20 years.

Marcie: There is apparently a lot of interest exploring the Cislunar environment from many countries Here’s Katelyn’s thoughts on the opportunity that lies ahead of us.

Kaitlyn: Cislunar Space offers numerous opportunities for new scientific discoveries, technological innovation, resource development, and economic growth. It allows for new missions and efficient spacecraft operations. I also think that right now we are in the it’s like a modern space race, but instead of just trying to get out of off the surface of the earth like we did in the 50s. Now it’s just to get to the surface of the moon. There are, hundreds of missions that are planned for the next couple of years, including lunar landers. They’re building the first lunar space station. They’re building the first lunar space. And this is all, to fuel what humans are meant to do, which is, we are curious. We want to leave Earth. We want to do, go to Mars. We have all these missions to extend outside of just Earth and the moon is going to be like our initial beacon. Being able to get into CIS lunar space and to have, relay satellites and a home base, that’s the first step for us being able to go anywhere.

Marcie: Kaitlyn Raub’s research has drawn interest from sponsors and stakeholders in the space industry. As well as government agencies and organizations involved in space exploration and national security. This interest is driven by the increasing importance of understanding and managing the Cislunar space as more countries and companies venture into space, exploration and development.

Kaitlyn Raub’s research tracking objects in the Cislunar space. provides valuable insights to the behavior and potential risks posed by these objects. As space exploration and commercialization, continue to expand. Her work will be crucial in informing policies, regulations, and technologies for ensuring the safety and security of space activities.

Her paper can be found at the AMOS 2023 conference technical proceedings

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Thanks for tuning into this episode of MITRE’s tech futures podcast. I wrote, produced and edited the show with the help of Dr Kris Rosfjord and Dr. Heath Farris technology futures innovation area leaders; Tom Schofield, media engineer; and Beverly Wood strategic communications. Our guests for this episode included Kaitlyn Raub, Dr. Gabrielle Hedrick, Derik Ho and Dr. Leslie Weitz.

The music in this episode was brought to you by Truvio and Ooyy

Copyright 2023. The MITRE Corporation. All Rights Reserved. MITRE PRS number 23-3957.

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Meet the Guests

Kaitlyn Raub

Kaitlyn Raub is a Senior Space Systems Engineer for the MITRE Corporation. She is the manager and operator of the MITRE Telescope Network, a suite of observatories in Colorado used for researching and experimenting with novel satellite observation methods. In her role at the MITRE Corporation, she is the Principal Investigator on internal research geared towards developing procedures for observing Cislunar and XGEO spacecraft with ground-based optical observatories. With a background primarily in observational astronomy, her current interests include exploring methods used for the detection, tracking, and imaging of exoplanets, asteroids, and small bodies for industry usage. Kaitlyn has authored or co-authored a handful of publications relating to optical observations of galaxies and spacecraft.

Dr. Gabrielle Hedrick

Dr. Gabrielle Hedrick focuses her research on cislunar and lunar space, including security in cislunar as part of the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Space ISAC). She became chair of its cislunar affinity group (after spearheading its creation) that doubles as the Security Working group for the AIAA Cislunar Ecosystem Task Force. She has a master’s degree in mining engineering, for which she spent a year mining gold in the Amazon Rainforest, a master’s degree in Planetary Sciences, focused on long-term planning for the NASA Mars rover Opportunity, and a PhD in Aerospace Engineering with a dissertation centered around terrain-aware path planning for the NASA Mars Sample Return rover. She is also an Emergency Medical Technician, working part-time for her county’s ambulance service provider. 

Derek Ho

Derek has been with MITRE since his retirement from the USAF in 2009.  He was a career space operations officer specializing in what is now called space domain awareness and protection of space capabilities during his time in the Air Force.  Derek has been interested in space exploration and the prospect of returning to the Moon ever since the Apollo missions ended. 

DR. Lesley Weitz

Dr. Lesley A. Weitz is a Senior Principal Aerospace Engineer and Department Chief Scientist in The MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD). Her current research focuses advanced avionics for NextGen concepts, air traffic operational concept development, trajectory modeling, and avionics and air traffic automation performance analysis. Dr. Weitz is also leading a project to study the use of an National Airspace System (NAS) network model to study how traffic management strategies impact NAS resilience. Dr. Weitz is the Chair of an avionics standards body developing advanced avionics applications, and she developed an inter-aircraft spacing algorithm (think automatic cruise control for airplanes) as part of that work.   


Dr. Weitz received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University. She is the author of over 45 peer-reviewed conference and journal papers.  Additionally, she has been awarded a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office entitled, “Methods and Systems for Determining Required Interval Management Performance.” Dr. Weitz is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a former Chair of the Guidance, Navigation, and Control Technical Committee and former Director of the Aerospace Sciences Group; she currently serves as the Chief of AIAA’s Technical Activities Division.