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The Next Commercial Space Industry? DARPA Explores Biomanufacturing in Cislunar Space

When you hear about the commercialization of space, it is not only the efforts of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, or Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide civilian space flights. If DARPA has anything to do with it, there will also be the “development and future realization of biomanufacturing capabilities in space.” The timeline for a private sector role in the commercialization of these biotechnology capabilities is unclear, but DARPA has begun to explore the possibilities the DARPA way.

DARPA Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth (B-SURE)

The “factory floor and space trucking lanes” for production and payload delivery back to earth would be built in cislunar space, defined by Space Wiki as “the volume within the Moon’s orbit, or a sphere formed by rotating that orbit. Volumes within that such as low earth orbit (LEO) are distinguished by other names. Practically, cislunar space is a useful label for “the volume between geostationary orbit and the moon’s orbit”.  Beyond cislunar space lies translunar space.”

(NOTE:  For the OODA Loop readership who would like to do a deep dive on cislunar space, the following linked document is way outside of the scope of this analysis – but we unearthed it in our research and it is just too rewarding, in its space geek hardcore-ness, not share it here immediately:  A Primer on Cislunar Space – courtesy of the Air Force Research Laboratory).

The DARPA project is called B-SURE, for “Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth”.  According to the recently posted DARPA Broad Agency Announcement  “will investigate fundamental research questions critical to the development and future realization of biomanufacturing capabilities in space. To accomplish this goal, B-SURE will collect data on the microbial utilization of space-based alternative feedstocks, optimization of microbial growth in variable gravities, and mitigation strategies for identified effects of Galactic Cosmic Radiation on microbial growth and bioproduction.  Biomanufacturing holds the potential to sustainably produce molecules and materials critical to national security with reduced reliance on traditional chemical synthesis precursors, components of which are fossil fuel derived.”

DARPA makes clear in the project proposal that B-Sure is essentially a feasibility and cost-effectiveness study, designed for the principal investigators on the project to “develop new models for the space economy to determine under what circumstances biomanufacturing would compete with (economically, logistically, etc.) or exceed traditional manufacturing practices on future spaceflight missions.”

Anne Cheever, a DARPA Program Manager, told Breaking Defense in an interview that DARPA “is aiming to answer fundamental questions about the feasibility of using microbes to produce molecules and materials in space.  “Currently, there’s no space-based manufacturing capability at all,” Cheever said. “So everything that goes for a mission is manufactured on Earth and then shipped to space…what we’re aiming to do is to reduce that reliance on an Earth-based supply chain.”

Cislunar Space and Space Domain Awareness

Image Source:  Exoanalytic Solutions

The U.S. Space Force, in their inaugural Space Capstone Report in 2020, Spacepower, described the future of cislunar space this way:  “The region of space between Earth and the moon, known as cislunar space, is viewed as the next military frontier.  Today, the entirety of economic and military space activities is confined to the geocentric regime; however, commercial investments and new technologies have the potential to expand the reach of vital National space interests to the cislunar regime and beyond in the near future.”

Not surprisingly, The DARPA B-SURE Program will need to operate in an ecosystem of information and logistical systems designed specifically for cislunar space, which is currently only on the drawing table.  While DARPA may be exploring space-omics applications, others in the space industry are concerned with the enabling technologies to make all of the predicted economic, situational awareness, and space security activities in cislunar space even possible, including the DARPA vision of biomanufacturing.

Public-private collaboration is already underway.  According to SpaceNews, The U.S. Air Force recently extended a research contract with Rhea Space Activity (RSA) to develop a software tool for the trajectory of satellites in cislunar space.  The new $697,000 Phase 2 award is to continue the project (which is also privately funded) the company announced in October.  “In this project, we’re trying to understand cislunar space, and how to monitor cislunar space for defense purposes,” RSA’s founder Shawn Usman told SpaceNews.  Last year, RSA won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 award for a “lunar intelligence dashboard.”  Another commercial orbit project, although It has not been described as a cislunar space  project,  is the recent Blue Origin unveiling of plans for a ‘space business park’ known as “Orbital Reef.”

Brien Flewelling is the Chief Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Architect at Exoanalytic Solutions, a defense, intelligence, and commercial space contractor.  In a 2020 Op-Ed, Flewelling described the current cislunar space context under which DARPA B-SURE Program will be operating:

“Our vision for American leadership in cislunar space combines commercial and government capabilities focused on achieving U.S. cislunar information dominance. Extending commercial solutions to ensure precise and persistent cislunar space domain awareness (SDA) holds great promise for mitigating challenges inherent to this domain…Cislunar information dominance can be defined as the ability to seize and control the information domain “high ground” when, where, and however required for decisive competitive advantage across the range activities within cislunar space.

Commercial solutions exist or are in development across a spectrum of activities once exclusively reserved for governments, from communications to navigation to lunar landing.  Cislunar SDA technologies are a foundational component of the infrastructure needed to support a cislunar economy, yet they have not received the priority or resources commensurate with their importance.”

For those of us who are only cursory space geeks, Cislunar SDA and biomanufacturing capabilities appear more realistic and strategically productive than efforts to inhabit Mars – and more substantial than simply enabling commercial space flights for the general population.  Cislunar SDA, in particular, envisions an extended space ecosystem to solve some of the problems back here on earth with a strategic pragmatism implicit in the promise it holds. To start, Let’s see how DARPA fares with the B-SURE Program, along with RSA’s and Exoanalytic Solution’s and Blue Origin’s efforts in the commercial space sector.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.