ESA is going to the Moon – in collaboration with its international partners – and seeks to build a lasting lunar link to enable sustainable space exploration.
The agency has now evaluated initial ideas to create a network of lunar telecommunications and navigation satellites.
Creating a commercial telecommunications and navigation service for the Moon will allow many of the dozens of planned lunar missions to share the same infrastructure to communicate with Earth, as well as to find their way on the lunar surface.
The service is needed because the planned missions are becoming regular trips to Earth’s natural satellite rather than one-off expeditions.
Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service will reduce the design complexity and weight of individual missions, making them more cost-efficient.
Lowering the ticket price to lunar exploration could also empower a wider group of ESA member states to launch their own national lunar missions, inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Two consortia of companies have now completed their system concept reviews, which set out how to create the lunar constellation, under ESA’s Moonlight initiative to identify the best way to create a lasting link with the Moon.
The reviews set out the business and technical analysis needed to identify and justify a number of feasible system concepts for creating the lunar network. The next step will be to define a detailed system architecture and identify the most suitable partnership models between private space companies and ESA.
Telespazio leads the first consortium. The consortium includes: satellite operators Inmarsat and Hispasat; manufacturing companies such as Thales Alenia Space Italy, OHB System in Germany, and Canadian space technology company MDA; Italian Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company (ALTEC); small and medium-sized enterprises such as Nanoracks Europe and Argotec; and universities and research centers such as SEE Lab, SDA Bocconi, and Politecnico di Milano.
The second consortium is spearheaded by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, both in the service prime capacity through its lunar services brand SSTL Lunar and as the satellite manufacturer. The consortium includes: satellite manufacturer Airbus; satellite network providers SES, based in Luxembourg, and Kongsberg Satellite Services, based in Norway; the Goonhilly Earth Station in the UK; and British satellite navigation company GMV-NSL.
NASA’s Artemis programme will use several of ESA’s service modules to return humans to the Moon, including the ESPRIT communications module for the lunar Gateway’s living quarters for astronauts. With its European industrial partner, ESA is helping to build the Lunar Pathfinder, showcasing lunar communications service provision by providing initial services to early lunar missions, including a complete lunar navigation in-orbit demonstration.
The Moonlight initiative builds on both the ESPRIT communications module and the Lunar Pathfinder.
The call for ideas for how to use a lasting link with the Moon is open until 30 April. People working for commercial companies, universities or governmental organisations are welcome to suggest how they would like to use a lunar communications and navigation service.