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European Space Agency reveals ambitious plans to build sat-nav around the moon

The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched an ambitious new project to build a sat-nav and communication satellite network in orbit around the moon.

This new infrastructure could one day turn our natural satellite into the ‘eighth continent’ as humanity spreads its wings and builds cities on the lunar surface.

ESA says the project, known as Moonlight, will support the Lunar Gateway space station, multiple agencies working on moon missions and human exploration.

In what will be the world’s first commercial service of its kind, a number of British firms have won contracts to investigate how it might work, worth over £2 million.

‘We are entering a new phase – the systematic exploration of our “eighth continent”, the Moon,’ ESA’s David Parker told BBC News. 

‘The Moon is a repository of 4.5 billion years of Solar System history, but we’ve hardly begun to unlock its secrets. And so Moonlight is something that we see as really exciting, as a necessary infrastructure to support sustained exploration.’

No details on the final cost of the mission or when it might be ready and fully operational have been released by the space agency. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched an ambitious new project to build a sat-nav and communication satellite network in orbit around the moon

This new infrastructure could one day turn our natural satellite into the 'eighth continent' as humanity spreads its wings and builds cities on the lunar surface

This new infrastructure could one day turn our natural satellite into the ‘eighth continent’ as humanity spreads its wings and builds cities on the lunar surface

ESA says the project, known as Moonlight, will support the Lunar Gateway space station, multiple agencies working on moon missions and human exploration

ESA says the project, known as Moonlight, will support the Lunar Gateway space station, multiple agencies working on moon missions and human exploration

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024  

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1 is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis II will take a crew on an orbit around the Moon but not land, and then bring them back to Earth 

Artemis III will be the first human landing on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972.

A crew including the first woman to land on the Moon will fly in the Orion capsule, dock with a lunar lander and spend a week or more on the surface. 

A number of firms from the UK, EU and Canada will work with the space agency to develop the Moonlight project, including how to provide telecom and navigation services to future missions – both large and small, crewed and robotic.

‘Such a lasting lunar link will enable sustainable space exploration,’ the agency says, which is one of the objectives of the NASA Artemis mission to return humans to the moon by 2024 and provide a permanent present on or around the natural satellite. 

Dozens of international, institutional and commercial teams are sending missions to the Moon that envisage a permanent lunar presence. 

The agency predicts that in future, thanks to the Lunar Gateway and an eventual moon base on the surface, there will be regular trips back and forth.

This will be vastly different to the Apollo era of lunar exploration, that involved a series of one-off missions to land on the surface of our moon.

Many of these initiatives come from the main space institutions in China, India, Japan and Russia, alongside other spacefaring nations, and private firms. 

A reliable and dedicated lunar communications and navigation service would allow missions to land wherever they wanted. 

Radio astronomers could set up observatories on the far side of the Moon, with the knowledge those signals will be easily and quickly relayed back to the Earth. 

Rovers could trundle over the lunar surface more speedily. It could even enable the teleoperation of rovers and other equipment from Earth, ESA suggested.

Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service would reduce the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, bringing the price down.

Lowering the ticket price to lunar exploration could empower a wider group of ESA member states to launch their own national lunar missions.  

Commercial bodies could use innovative technologies developed for the Moon to create new services and products on Earth, which would create new jobs. 

Dozens of international, institutional and commercial teams are sending missions to the Moon that envisage a permanent lunar presence

Dozens of international, institutional and commercial teams are sending missions to the Moon that envisage a permanent lunar presence

In what will be the world's first commercial service of its kind, a number of British firms have won contracts to investigate how it might work, worth over £2 million

In what will be the world’s first commercial service of its kind, a number of British firms have won contracts to investigate how it might work, worth over £2 million

Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service would reduce the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, bringing the price down

Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service would reduce the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, bringing the price down

A reliable and dedicated lunar communications and navigation service would allow missions to land wherever they wanted

A reliable and dedicated lunar communications and navigation service would allow missions to land wherever they wanted

'We are entering a new phase - the systematic exploration of our 'eighth continent', the Moon,' ESA's David Parker told BBC News

‘We are entering a new phase – the systematic exploration of our ‘eighth continent’, the Moon,’ ESA’s David Parker told BBC News 

They could also identify new Moon-enabled services and products such as virtual reality games in which players manipulate lunar robots.

British firm Surrey Satellite Technology, through its subsidiary SSTL, will be heavily involved in Moonlight, working as a service provider and satellite manufacturer. 

SSTL’s Managing Director Phil Brownnett said the efforts to create the network will reduce the design complexity of individual missions in the future.  

‘Leading the consortium builds on our successful collaboration with ESA for our Lunar Pathfinder communications spacecraft which will provide the world’s first commercial Lunar data relay service after launch in 2022.’ 

British firm Surrey Satellite Technology, through its subsidiary SSTL, will be heavily involved in Moonlight, working as a service provider and satellite manufacturer

British firm Surrey Satellite Technology, through its subsidiary SSTL, will be heavily involved in Moonlight, working as a service provider and satellite manufacturer

Commercial bodies could use innovative technologies developed for the Moon to create new services and products on Earth, which would create new jobs

Commercial bodies could use innovative technologies developed for the Moon to create new services and products on Earth, which would create new jobs

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said the upcoming missions to the moon are exciting people all around the world, adding she was proud to see UK space companies leading the way in making them a reality

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said the upcoming missions to the moon are exciting people all around the world, adding she was proud to see UK space companies leading the way in making them a reality

WHAT IS THE LUNAR GATEWAY? 

The US, Europe, Japan and Canada are cooperating on a NASA-led project to build the first lunar space station, codenamed the Lunar Gateway.

It is part of the wider Artemis mission to create a sustainable lunar exploration setup and eventually land humans on Mars. 

The crew-tended spaceport will orbit the moon and serve as a ‘gateway to deep space and the lunar surface,’ NASA has said.

The first modules of the station could be completed as soon as 2024.

An international base for lunar exploration for humans and robots and a stopover for spacecraft is a leading contender to succeed the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS), the world’s largest space project to date.

Inmarsat, based in London, and MDA Space and Robotics Ltd (MDA UK), based in the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, are part of a consortium led by Telespazio in Italy exploring the idea in more detail.

They will be investigating the development of a Lunar Communications and Navigation Service (LCNS) to support future science, exploration and commercial activities in orbit above, and on, the lunar surface. 

Yasrine Ibnyahya, Senior Director, Advanced Concepts and Technologies at Inmarsat, said providing communication and navigation capabilities around the Moon is a major challenge, both technically and commercially. 

‘I strongly believe that the expertise and assets from Inmarsat and our partners can solve this challenge in the most efficient and cost-effective way.’ 

‘This lunar project is only the first step to unlock future opportunities. It can become the hub to facilitate human space exploration, further technology developments and perhaps access to new resources.’

UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway said the upcoming missions to the moon are exciting people all around the world, adding she was proud to see UK space companies leading the way in making them a reality. 

‘Britain’s expertise in navigation and telecommunications is second to none and this first of its kind commercial service demonstrates our ambition for the UK to become a world-leading space nation.’

Radio astronomers could set up observatories on the far side of the Moon, with the knowledge those signals will be easily and quickly relayed back to the Earth

Radio astronomers could set up observatories on the far side of the Moon, with the knowledge those signals will be easily and quickly relayed back to the Earth

Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service would reduce the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, bringing the price down

Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service would reduce the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, bringing the price down

Rovers could trundle over the lunar surface more speedily. It could even enable the teleoperation of rovers and other equipment from Earth, ESA suggested

Rovers could trundle over the lunar surface more speedily. It could even enable the teleoperation of rovers and other equipment from Earth, ESA suggested

Elodie Viau, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at ESA said a last link with the moon would enable sustainable space exploration.

‘By using an ESA-backed telecommunications and navigation service for the Moon, explorers will be able to navigate smoothly and to relay to Earth all the knowledge gained from these lunar missions,’ Viau added.

‘A robust, reliable and efficient telecommunications and navigation system will make the dozens of individual missions planned for the Moon more cost-efficient and enable smaller countries to become space-faring nations, inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.’

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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