The Moon has no GPS. NASA and ESA are trying to fix this.

The Moon has no GPS. NASA and ESA are trying to fix this.

  • Dozens of lunar missions are planned over the next decade.
  • But right now, there is no satellite navigation system between the Earth and the Moon.
  • NASA and ESA are developing ways to help rockets navigate to the Moon autonomously.

When NASA The Artemis 1 mission successfully flew around the moon in Novembershowed the world that humans are on the way back.

NASA and the European Space Agency aim put boots on the moon in 2025 and establish a permanent lunar base that will orbit it in the next two years. China and Russia are also working together to establish a separate moon base. with manned landings set for 2036.

But right now, there is no GPS to get there. Astronauts cannot navigate autonomously in deep space, and each mission depends on trained expert engineers who constantly direct the missions from the ground.

This will quickly become unsustainable with missions moving back and forth.

Space agencies are working to put satellite navigation, or satellite navigation, on traveling rockets 239,000 miles between the Earth and the Moon. They also plan to build a new navigation network around the moon. Here’s how.

How space agencies navigate today is cumbersome and expensive

Apollo 11 personnel watch liftoff at the launch control center

It took hundreds of people to help the Apollo rockets navigate to the moon. Here the Apollo 11 crew watches as it lifts off on July 16, 1969.


Today, the only way to get from point A to point B in space is through complicated physics-based calculations, customized for each mission.

When the spacecraft moves through space, the only point of reference is the Earth. So you have to send a signal to Earth to understand where it is, which means there are massive blind spots.

NASA completely lost communication Orionthe spacecraft used in the Artemis 1 mission, when this it was going after the moon. For a few minutes, all the engineers could do was hold their breath and hope they’d see the spacecraft emerge unharmed on the other side.

This is resource-intensive and expensive, Javier Ventura-Traveset, chief engineer of ESA’s Galileo Navigation Science Office, told Insider. (The US government runs 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.

Using Earth’s satellites to go to the Moon could help

Surprisingly, the cheapest way to get a sat nav into deep space is to take advantage of satellites around Earth, Elizabeth Rooney, a senior. engineer at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, he told Insider. The company works with ESA to develop satellite navigation in space.

There are some big problems with this approach. The main one is that these satellites point towards the Earth.

This means that most of the signal from the satellites is blocked and only a little spills over. The spilled part is much weaker than the main signal, and becomes even weaker further away from Earth.

An infographic shows how Earth blocks much of the main signal from GNSS signals.

Beyond the immediate perimeter of the Earth, called here the space service volume, the Earth blocks much of the signal coming from terrestrial navigation satellites (here called GNSS satellites, for Global Navigation Satellite System).


Given all these limitations, it might seem that using this signal to navigate to the Moon would be impossible. But engineers have spent decades developing sensitive detectors that could tap into this signal from deep space.

And they succeeded.

In 2019, four satellites were able to determine their position in space using signals from Earth’s GPS satellites.

were 116,300 miles away — about halfway to the moon, Ventura-Traveset said.

We really need a way to go to the moon autonomously

The next frontier is detecting that signal on the other half of the journey. But Ventura-Traveset is confident.

ESA and NASA have perfected their detectors that could take advantage of signals from Earth satellites and are ready to test them on upcoming lunar missions.

A schematic shows the first stage of ESA's Moonlight initiative

As part of the ESA initiative, a detector will be mounted on a satellite orbiting the Moon, called the Lunar Pathfinder, to see if it can navigate autonomously.

ESA-K Oldenburg/Insider

The ESA receiver, called NaviMoonto be launched aboard the Lunar Pathfinder satellite in 2025 or 2026. ESA predicts that NaviMoon should be able to determine the satellite’s position with an accuracy of about 60 meters (about 200 feet), Ventura-Traveset said.

The hope is that thanks to this detector, the satellite will be able to navigate autonomously around the Moon, he said. It’s also very light, about 4 kilograms (8 pounds) in total, and could replace much of the heaviest equipment aboard a spacecraft.

An image shows the receiver component of ESA's Navimoon.

Testing the NaviMoon satellite navigation receiver.


NASA is also working on detectors, developed with the Italian Space Agency. They aim to launch the first of these receivers on the surface of the Moon in 2024 as part of the lunar GNSS receiver experiment.

There’s “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 of Policy and Strategic Communications at the Space Communications and Navigation Program at NASA headquarters, he told Insider in an interview.

Miller said many other countries have begun looking to invest in deep space navigation technology.

“Everybody has come to understand that this is an emerging user that’s not going away, that we actually have to prepare and make the cis-lunar space, the whole space between the Earth and the Moon, the most robust and reliable possible with these signals,” he said.

Finally, we will need a satellite navigation network around the moon

An infographic shows how ESA's Moonlight initiative would work

In the second phase of ESA’s Moonlight, a network of satellites should help triangulate the spacecraft’s position on the surface.

ESA-K Oldenburg/Insider

The signal from Earth’s satellites can reach spacecraft as far as the Moon, but once they’re on the surface, the signal won’t be very useful.

At this point, these signals can only reach what is visible from Earth, so the dark side of the moon and the poles of the moon are off limits.

So the plan is to give the Moon its own fleet of communication and navigation satellites, called Moonlight Initiative. The first node on Moonlight would be NASA’s Pathfinder satellite.

Ventura-Traveset said ESA aims to test a basic Moonlight infrastructure by 2027 and a more complete infrastructure by 2030.

NASA is also working on building its own network, called LunaNet. from NASA Entrance doora space station that the agency wants to send into the orbit of the Moon, would be another node of the network.

“We would envision some kind of architecture that includes both NASA and ESA satellites working together,” NASA’s Miller said.

Moon colonists will need high-speed internet

An illustration shows a satellite and Earth reflected in the visor or a future astronaut on the moon.

Satellites could help future lunar astronauts navigate the moon, as seen in this artist’s impression.


There is a more commercial aspect to returning humans to the moon. Eventually, colonists on the moon would need to set up a camp so they could mine minerals and water, which could be used to fuel rockets on their way to Mars.

Visitors to the Moon will need to be able to communicate with Earth, talk to each other effectively and entertain themselves, Ventura-Traveset said.

Moon settlers would then be able to access high-speed Internet, video conference with loved ones on Earth, stream programs and create their own content from space, Ventura-Traveset said.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that’s not the way we’re going,” Ventura-Traveset said.

#Moon #GPS #NASA #ESA #fix

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