Will Space Force protect orbiting gas stations and bases on the moon?

A design concept for OrbitFab’s Tanker-002 in transit to geostationary orbit.

A design concept for OrbitFab’s Tanker-002 in transit to geostationary orbit. Orbitfab

As U.S. companies venture farther from Earth, whether the newest service will protect them remains under discussion.

Earlier this month, U.S. firm OrbitFab inked its first deal to provide ”a gas station in space” that will help satellites and spacecraft keep going after they exhaust the propellant they brought  to orbit. It’s another sign of the infrastructure being built to help firms and countries return to the moon and ultimately venture beyond. 

For the Space Force, it’s generating another set of questions about its responsibilities to defend those assets.

“We're already starting to see so much private industry reaching towards cislunar space and lunar projects. So this refueling, what it opens up, is now the condition that you can travel beyond only the fuel that you can bring with you. Think how limited our travels would be if we can only go anywhere on one tank of gas,” said Lesley Conn, senior manager of research and analysis with the Space Foundation. “It allows U.S. interests to advance and other national interests. It also raises the specter that as U.S. companies expand into space, how will the U.S. Space Force and other nations seek to advance and extend their defense responsibilities into that same environment?”

There’s no policy answer yet, said Victoria Samson. Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation. The administration “is still thinking about what the U.S. wants its role for the U.S. military to be in space,” Samson said. 

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said that role is still being shaped. 

“As the nation goes further away, as the world goes further away from the Earth, I think there's going to be a requirement to have at least at a minimum, some domain awareness on that environment,” Raymond said Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Raymond and other military leaders have suggested that space should, in fact, be among the highest national-defense priorities, citing Russia’s recent anti-satellite test that sent a large debris field hurtling toward the International Space Station, and China’s launch of a hypersonic missile that circled the globe

U.S. policymakers have yet to decide how to respond, say, to an attack on a U.S. satellite.“National policy has had to respond to this new environment we find ourselves in in space,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, who leads Space Operations Command. “Countries are showing publicly the threats that they're now building to try to prove to us that they can deny us the space capabilities that we had spent so many decades developing–and that are absolutely foundational to not only how we defend this country, but also our very society and economies as well.” 

In 2020, the Space Force and NASA agreed to collaborate on helping ensure safe spaceflight as NASA prepares to launch Artemis, its mission to return to the moon. The U.S. is a signatory to the 1967 United Nations treaty prohibiting military activity on the moon, China is not. 

“As the domain becomes more congested, more contested, more competitive, I see the need for rules of the road,” Raymond said. But he added: “I'm not naive to think that if we have rules of the road that everybody's going to follow.”

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