The moon has no GPS. NASA and ESA are trying to solve that.
- Dozens of lunar missions are planned over the next decade.
- But at the moment there is no satellite navigation system between the Earth and the Moon.
- NASA and ESA are developing ways for rockets to autonomously navigate to the moon.
When NASAs The Artemis 1 mission successfully circled the moon in Novemberit showed the world that people are on their way to going back.
NASA and the European Space Agency are striving for it putting boots on the moon by 2025 and put one permanent lunar base in orbit for the next several years. China and Russia are also teaming up to establish a separate moon base, with manned landings planned for 2036.
But at the moment there is no GPS to get us there. Astronauts cannot navigate deep space autonomously, and each mission relies on expertly trained engineers constantly directing the missions from the ground.
That will quickly become unsustainable with back and forth commuting missions.
Space agencies are working to put satellite navigation, or satnav, on rockets 239,000 miles between the Earth and the Moon. They also plan to build a whole new navigation network all around the moon. Here’s how.
How space agencies navigate today is cumbersome and expensive
Today, the only way to get from point A to point B in space is to make complex physics-based calculations adapted to each mission.
As the spacecraft moves through space, its only point of reference is Earth. So it has to send a signal back to Earth to understand where it is, which means there are huge blind spots.
NASA completely lost communication with Orionthe spacecraft used in the Artemis 1 mission, when the went after the moon. For a few minutes, all the engineers could do was hold their breath and hope that they would see the spacecraft appear on the other side unscathed.
This is labor intensive and expensive, Javier Ventura-Traveset, chief engineer of ESA’s Galileo Navigation Science Office, told Insider. (The US government is running GPS; Galileo is the European version.)
What space exploration needs now is a way for spacecraft to triangulate their position from space so they can navigate autonomously without input from Earth.
It might help to use Earth’s satellites to get to the moon
Surprisingly, the cheapest way to take satnav to deep space is to use the satellites orbiting the earth, Elizabeth Rooney, a senior engineer for Surrey Satellite Technology LtdInsider told . The company is working with ESA on the development of satellite navigation in space.
There are a few major problems with this approach. The most important of these is that these satellites point to Earth.
That means most of the signal from the satellites is blocked and only a little overflows. The bit that spills over is a lot weaker than the main signal and gets even weaker further away from Earth.
Given all these limitations, it seems impossible to use this signal to navigate to the moon. But engineers have spent decades developing sensitive detectors that could harness that signal from deep space.
And it worked.
In 2019, four satellites were able to determine their position in space using signals from Earth’s GPS satellites.
They were 116,300 miles away — about halfway to the moon, Ventura-Traveset said.
We really need a way to autonomously go all the way to the moon
The next boundary detects that signal on the other half of the journey. But Ventura-Traveset is confident.
ESA and NASA have refined their detectors that can exploit signals from Earth’s satellites, and are ready to test them on upcoming lunar missions.
ESA’s receiver called NaviMoonis launched aboard the Lunar Pathfinder satellite in 2025 or 2026. ESA predicts that NaviMoon should be able to pinpoint the satellite’s position with a precision of about 60 meters (about 200 feet), Ventura-Traveset said.
The hope is that this detector will allow the satellite to navigate around the moon autonomously, he said. It’s also very light, about 4 kilograms (8 pounds) in total, and could replace much of the heavier equipment aboard a spacecraft.
NASA is also working on detectors, developed with the Italian Space Agency. They aim to launch the first of these receptors to the moon’s surface in 2024 as part of the Lunar GNSS receiver experiment.
There is a “bit of a friendly competitive race” between ESA and NASA to get the satellite navigation signal from Earth to the moon, James Joseph “JJ” Miller, deputy director for policy and strategic communications in the space communications and navigation program at NASA headquarters, Insider told an interviewer.
Miller said many other countries have started looking to invest in deep-space navigation technology.
“Everyone has come to understand that this is an emerging user that isn’t going away, that we actually need to prepare the cis lunar space, all the space between the Earth and the Moon, and make it as robust and reliable as possible with these signals,” he said.
Ultimately, we need a satellite navigation network all around the moon
The signal from Earth’s satellites can take spacecraft all the way to the moon, but once they’re on the surface, the signal won’t be very useful.
At that point, these signals can only reach what’s visible from Earth, so the dark side of the moon and lunar poles are off limits.
So the plan is to give the moon its own fleet of communications and navigation satellites, called the Moonlight initiative. The first node in Moonlight would be NASA’s Pathfinder satellite.
Ventura-Traveset said ESA aims to test basic Moonlight infrastructure by 2027 and more comprehensive infrastructure by 2030.
“We could envision some kind of architecture where both NASA and ESA satellites work together,” NASA’s Miller said.
Moon settlers need fast internet
There is a more commercial aspect to returning humans to the moon. In the long run, lunar colonists should set up camp so they can mine minerals and water — which can be used to fuel rockets bound for Mars.
Moon visitors should be able to communicate with Earth, talk to each other effectively and be entertained, Ventura-Traveset said.
Later, moon colonists would have access to high-speed internet, videoconferencing with loved ones on Earth, streaming shows and creating their own content from space, Ventura-Traveset said.
“I don’t think anyone would argue that this isn’t the way we’re going,” Ventura-Traveset said.
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