Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

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Ben Bahney

Ben Bahney

Leads the Laboratory’s Space Science and Security Program

On Target for Space Security

When the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft reached its destination 11 million kilometers from Earth, the culminating intercept was cause for celebration around the world—especially at Lawrence Livermore. As we learn in this issue’s feature article, A Lasting Impact, the NASA mission was propelled by years of sustained research in the Laboratory’s Strategic Deterrence organization. Now, a year after DART’s successful deflection of the asteroid Dimorphos, the initial excitement has been confirmed by vivid imagery and revealing analysis. At the Laboratory’s Space Science and Security Program, we see that DART was wildly successful in terms of meeting its scientific and engineering goals as well as by getting the public excited about planetary defense.

However, as noted in the feature on the Laboratory’s role in DART, “there’s so much further to go.” The unique contributions to this mission by our Laboratory’s team are extensible to actual emergency disruption or deflection missions—a next step that the Laboratory’s Space Science and Security Program is beginning to pursue.

DART successfully demonstrated the deflection of an asteroid’s orbit, but Dimorphos was not a threat to Earth. To protect our planet against a future threatening near-Earth object (NEO), the challenge is to develop a defense that is both far more rapid and much less expensive than the $300-million, 10-year development required for DART. This is where the Laboratory’s Space Science and Security Program comes in; we specialize in rapid and responsive missions and in mission areas where security and science overlap. Over time, we see the Laboratory steadily growing our position as a community leader in these areas.

We work on missions that specifically can be launched in an emergency, such as to disrupt or deflect an NEO. In 2021 we were a key player in a responsive mission for the U.S. Space Force, called “Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (Tac-RL2),” in which we designed, built, tested, and delivered the spacecraft’s optical payload in 100 days. That space mission went from concept to flight in about 17 months. Our success on Tac-RL2 led us to build four optical payloads to have on hand to rapidly integrate into future responsive space missions for national security space. In addition to rapid disruption or deflection missions, at the Space Science and Security Program, we are also developing NEO characterization concepts in collaboration with the Physical and Life Sciences (PLS) and Computing directorates. These concepts could be adapted to track NEOs or they could be used to track spacecraft. The technology readiness level for space-based space surveillance is high, but cost-effectiveness and capacity are the hard challenges.

A number of these mission concepts are in the works. First, we are planning a third vehicle for our GEOStare set of demonstrations for inexpensive, commercial space domain awareness solutions. This effort leverages our cooperative research and development agreement with Terran Orbital, with which we have collected hundreds of thousands of images in two years of operation of GEOStare vehicle two. Second, we are working on a mission we call “NEOStare” to monitor objects in deep space by using multiple vehicles in a coplanar orbit. Our third mission idea, “Ra-CATS,” is to take advantage of a near-Earth flyby of the asteroid Apophis in 2029. Ra-CATS would put spacecraft roughly in the asteroid’s path and observe the asteroid as it flies by, looking for changes in its surface properties as Earth’s gravity pulls objects around the surface of the asteroid. This radically inexpensive (<$100 million) and fairly rapid (three-year development) concept can get detailed characterization information on Apophis, which otherwise would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

As spacecraft begin to proliferate in deep space, maintaining accurate position, track, and characterization of these objects will outstrip the capability of ground-based methods. Planetary defense and space domain awareness missions will need a variety of observatory locations, including in space.

The feature in this issue also notes that planetary defense work has attracted early-career scientists to our Laboratory. I also see the space program continuing to grow our spacecraft engineering workforce, engaging colleagues as well as incorporating capabilities from across Strategic Deterrence, PLS, the National Ignition Facility, Computing, and other parts of Engineering.

Two of this issue’s highlights also illustrate the Laboratory’s growing need for early-career researchers. The Flight Performance Integration project, described in Streamlined: Flight Simulation Modeling Soars, is a team of generally early-career scientists, and the Fernbach Fellowship attracts postdoctoral researchers who bring new solutions to Computing. Another highlight is about an innovative application of additive manufacturing to training explosives-detection canines—yet another of the growing national security spaces where the Laboratory’s expertise can have impact. As demonstrated in the DART mission—indeed, in all of these articles—Lawrence Livermore is positioned to lead with big ideas, a staff of diverse experiences, and new capabilities in the expanding dimensions of national security.