ESA signs off on contracts for lunar data relay and navigation

Surrey Satellite and Airbus to ponder a fleet of Moonlight satellites


The European Space Agency (ESA) has inked a deal with a pair of consortia aimed at providing telecommunication and navigation services for Moon missions.

Coming under the agency's Moonlight initiative, one consortium is headed by the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and includes companies such as Airbus and SES as well as the Goonhilly Earth Station in the UK. The second is led by Telespazio and includes Inmarsat, Nanoracks Europe, and Spanish satellite operator Hispasat.

The consortia have been tasked with planning a lasting link to the Moon. The study period is expected to be between 12 to 18 months and potentially presented to ESA's council in 2022. If all goes well and the results are signed off, work could start in 2023 and the network be operational five years later.

In terms of navigation, ESA is aiming for accuracy to 100 metres although reckoned it could got be got down to 30 metres "in the first instance". A far cry from the likes of GPS or Galileo, but a good start.

Paul Verhoef, ESA's director of Navigation, estimated that three or four satellites would be needed in lunar orbit for relay purposes, with some smaller units serving navigational purposes.

The contracts won by the SSTL consortium are worth just over £2m, according to the UK Space Agency.

The fleet, once operational, will serve a critical role in future lunar missions. As well as planned crewed missions, the link would make the establishment of radio telescopes or other research on the far side of the Moon and outside of line-of-sight communications considerably easier. ESA representatives also highlighted that a shared telecommunication and navigation system would reduce the design complexity of mission, with payload on spacecraft freed for additional instruments or cargo.

The mission will follow in the footsteps of the Lunar Pathfinder, due to enter operation in 2024. The Lunar Pathfinder is ESA's first Moon partnership with European industry and aimed at addressing communication and navigation needs for lunar exploration as well as demonstrating lunar navigation.

ESA is also providing the ESPRIT communications module for the lunar Gateway as well as the service module for NASA's Orion spacecraft.

Elodie Viau, director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, signed the contracts on behalf of ESA. "A lasting link with the Moon enables sustainable space exploration for all our international partners, including commercial space companies," she said. ®

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