The moon does not have a global positioning system (GPS). NASA and the European Space Agency are trying to fix that.

  • Dozens of lunar missions are planned over the next decade.
  • But at present, there is no satellite navigation system between the Earth and the Moon.
  • NASA and the European Space Agency are developing ways to help rockets navigate to the moon autonomously.

when nasa The Artemis 1 mission successfully circled the Moon in NovemberIt showed the world that humans are on their way back.

NASA and the European Space Agency are aiming to Put shoes on the moon by 2025 and create a A permanent lunar base will orbit it for the next two years. China and Russia are also working together to create a separate lunar base, With a crew landing set in the year 2036.

But right now, there is no GPS to get us there. Astronauts can’t sail autonomously in deep space, and every mission relies on expertly trained engineers constantly directing missions from Earth.

This quickly becomes unsustainable as missions go back and forth.

Space agencies are working to put a satellite navigation system, or satnav, on rockets that travel in space 239,000 miles between the Earth and the Moon. They are also planning to build a whole new mobility network About Moon. Here’s how.

How space agencies navigate today is cumbersome and expensive

Apollo 11 personnel see takeoff at Launch Control Center

It took hundreds of people to help the Apollo mission rockets sail to the Moon. Here, Apollo 11 employees watch its launch on July 16, 1969.


Today, the only way to get from point A to point B in space is to perform complex calculations based on physics, customized for each mission.

As the spacecraft moves through space, the only reference point is Earth. So it needs to send a signal to Earth to understand where it is, which means huge blind spots.

NASA has completely lost touch with Orionthe spacecraft used on the Artemis 1 mission, when He went after the moon. For a few minutes, all the engineers could do was hold their breath and hope they’d see the spacecraft emerge unscathed on the other side.

This is resource intensive and expensive, said Javier Ventura Travisette, chief engineer at the European Space Agency’s Galileo Navigation Science Office. (United States government administered GPS; Galileo It is the European version.)

What space exploration needs now is a way for spacecraft to triangulate their position from space, so they can navigate independently without input from Earth.

Using Earth’s satellites can help go to the Moon

Surprisingly, the cheapest way to get a satellite into deep space is to harness satellites around the Earth, Elizabeth Rooney, Senior Engineer for Surrey Satellite Technology Ltdhe said from the inside. The company works with the European Space Agency to develop astronautics in space.

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

This means that most of the satellite signal is blocked and only a little is spilled out. The part that’s spilling is much weaker than the main signal, and it becomes weaker farther from the ground.

The infographic shows how much of the main GNSS signal is blocked by the Earth.

Beyond Earth’s immediate periphery, here called space service volume, much of the signal coming from Earth’s navigation satellites (here called GNSS satellites, for Global Navigation Satellite System) is blocked by Earth.


Given all these limitations, it would seem that using this signal to sail to the Moon would be impossible. But engineers have spent decades developing sensitive detectors that can harness that signal from deep space.

And they succeeded.

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

She was 116,300 miles — about halfway to the moon, Ventura-Traveset said.

We really need a way to go to the moon independently

Next frontiers detect that signal on the other half of the journey. But Ventura-Traveset is confident.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA are improving their detectors that can harness signals from Earth’s satellites, and are preparing to test them on upcoming moon missions.

A diagram shows the first phase of the European Space Agency's Moonlight Initiative

As part of the European Space Agency’s initiative, a detector will be installed on a satellite orbiting the Moon, called the Lunar Pathfinder, to see if it can navigate autonomously.

ESA-K Oldenburg / Insider

ESA receiver, called Navy Moonis scheduled to be launched aboard the Lunar Pathfinder satellite In 2025 or 2026. The European Space Agency expects NaviMoon to be able to locate the satellite with an accuracy of about 60 meters (about 200 feet), Ventura-Traveset said.

The hope, he said, is that thanks to this detector, the satellite should be able to independently navigate around the moon. It’s also very lightweight, about 4 kilograms (8 pounds) altogether, and can replace a lot of the heavy equipment on a spacecraft.

Image shows the receiver component of the European Space Agency's Navimoon.

The NaviMoon satnav receiver is being tested.


NASA is also working on detectors that were developed in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency. They aim to launch the first of these receivers on the lunar surface in 2024 As part of a GNSS receiver experiment on the lunar surface.

There is “a bit of a friendly competitive race” between the European Space Agency and NASA to bring the Earth’s satnav signal to the moon, James Joseph “JJ” Miller, deputy director for policy and strategic communications in the Space Communications and Navigation Program at NASA Headquarters, told the insider in an interview.

Miller said many other countries are starting to look to invest in deep space navigation technology.

“Everyone has realized that this is an emerging user that is not going to go away, and that we actually have to equip and make the CIS lunar space, and all the space between the Earth and the Moon, as robust and reliable as possible with these signals.”

Ultimately, we’ll need a satellite navigation network About Moon

A graphic showing how the European Space Agency's Moonlight Initiative will work

In the European Space Agency’s Moonlight Phase II, a network of satellites should help locate spacecraft on the surface.

ESA-K Oldenburg / Insider

The signal from Earth’s satellites might relay spacecraft to the Moon, but once on the surface the signal isn’t very useful.

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

So the plan is to give the moon its own fleet of communications and navigation satellites, which are called Moonlight Initiative. The first node on Moonlight will be NASA’s Pathfinder satellite.

Ventura-Traveset said the European Space Agency aims to test basic infrastructure for Moonlight by 2027, and a more extensive infrastructure by 2030.

NASA is also building its own network called Luna Net. NASA agency Gatea space station the agency aims to send into lunar orbit, will be another node in the network.

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

Moon settlers will need high-speed internet

The illustration shows a satellite and the earth reflected on the visor or a futuristic moon astronaut.

Satellites could help future lunar astronauts navigate the Moon, as evidenced by this artist’s impression.


There is a more commercial side to returning humans to the moon. In the long term, settlers on the moon will need to set up camp so they can mine for minerals and water — which can be used to fuel rockets on their way to Mars.

Ventura-Traveset said that visitors to the Moon will need to be able to communicate with Earth, talk to each other effectively, and have fun.

In the near future, settlers on the moon could access high-speed internet, videoconferencing with loved ones on Earth, broadcast performances, and create their own content from space, Ventura Travelsit said.

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

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