Two European groups are developing plans for the Moonlight network for satellites in orbit and basestations on the surface of the Moon

The European Space Agency this week commissioned preparatory design work for the Moonlight network from groups led by Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) in the UK and Telespazio, a joint venture of Leonardo and Thales.

Dozens of international, institutional and commercial teams are planning to send missions to the Moon, including five landers to be launched by SpaceX. Using a shared telecommunications and navigation service reduces the design complexity of future individual missions and make them lighter, freeing space for more scientific instruments or other cargo, making each individual mission more cost-effective.

The Moonlight study will define the service infrastructure and clearly lay out the development path for a constellation of Lunar communication and navigation satellites. The Study will characterise the complete end to end system, including the Lunar Space Segment, the Moon Surface Segment, the Lunar User Segment and the Earth Ground Segment.

The first stage with a data relay service is planned for launch in 2024.

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SSTL will lead the first consortium through its lunar services operation SSTL Lunar and as a maker of small satellites. The consortium also includes satellite manufacturer Airbus with satellite network providers SES, based in Luxembourg, and Kongsberg Satellite Services, based in Norway; the Goonhilly Earth Station in the UK and British satellite navigation company GMV-NSL.

The  other consortium will be spearheaded by Telespazio working with satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space (another joint venture between Thales and Leonardo; UK satellite operator Inmarsat; Canadian space technology company MDA; Telespazio Germany and satellite manufacturer OHB Systems in Germany. This group also includes Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, Italian Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company (ALTEC), aerospace engineering company Argotec, Nanoracks Europe, the Politecnico Milano and the Università commerciale Luigi Bocconi.

Next: Moonlight satellite constellation 

The planned constellation of interconnected Lunar orbiters will enable surface missions operating on the far side of the Moon, without direct to Earth line of sight, to keep constant contact with Earth. It will also provide Lunar navigation signals to support critical mission phases such as precision landing of scientific equipment and the operation of rovers.

“A lasting link with the Moon enables sustainable space exploration for all our international partners, including commercial space companies. 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,” said Elodie Viau, ESA’s Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications. “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.”

“Selection for the Moonlight Study is another step forward for our SSTL Lunar team and, together with our consortium partners, we will be bringing a wealth of both innovation and experience to our technical solution. 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 2024,” said SSTL’s Managing Director Phil Brownne.

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