What the ESA’s lunar satellite plans mean for future moon missions

20 May 2021

Image: © Aleksandr/Stock.adobe.com

A network of lunar satellites will allow moon missions to land wherever they want and could enable the teleoperation of rovers from Earth.

A proposal from the European Space Agency (ESA) to create a commercially viable constellation of lunar satellites has taken another step forward.

The ESA’s Moonlight initiative will see several companies devise detailed plans for providing telecommunications and navigation services for missions to the moon.

‘A robust, reliable and efficient telecommunications and navigation system will enable smaller countries to become space-faring nations’

A reliable and dedicated constellation of lunar satellites would open up a new realm of possibilities for travel to and exploration of the lunar surface.

The network could enable moon missions to land wherever they want, allow rovers to travel across the surface more speedily and even enable the teleoperation of rovers and other equipment from Earth.

Today (20 May), the ESA announced the selection of two consortia of companies to articulate exactly how to achieve a lasting link with the moon.

UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) will lead the first consortium, both in a service capacity through its lunar services brand SSTL Lunar and as the satellite manufacturer. The consortium also includes satellite manufacturer Airbus, satellite network providers SES and Kongsberg Satellite Services, and the Goonhilly Earth Station in the UK.

The second consortium will be spearheaded by spaceflight services company Telespazio and includes satellite operator Inmarsat, Canadian space technology company MDA, aerospace engineering company Argotec, and Bocconi University.

Dozens of international, institutional and commercial teams are sending missions to the moon and it is expected that these will become regular trips rather than one-off expeditions. The ESA is going to the moon together with international partners including NASA.

ESA’s director of telecommunications and integrated applications, Elodie Viau, said a lasting link to the moon will enable sustainable space exploration for everyone.

“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,” she said.

SSTL’s managing director Phil Brownnett added: “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.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic