ESA Wants Space Companies to Connect and Guide Moon Missions

Artist’s impression of the European Large Logistics Lander (EL3) unloading cargo. This cargo could include a mission to explore lunar caves. (Credit: ESA/ATG-Medialab)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Are you ready to join ESA’s initiative to support European space companies to create a constellation of lunar satellites that connect and guide missions to the Moon?

Creating lasting telecommunications and navigation links with the Moon will enable sustainable space exploration for the hundreds of lunar missions that are due to launch within the next few decades. As part of its efforts to promote European leadership, autonomy and responsibility, ESA is inviting space companies in Europe and Canada to provide telecommunications and navigation services to these lunar missions, under its Moonlight initiative.

ESA is completing two studies with two consortia of space companies based in Europe that assess the business case and the technical solutions for building and operating a constellation of lunar satellites. ESA is now asking any space firms to indicate whether they would like to become involved in the ambitious project – or simply to develop lunar telecommunication and navigation technologies and products. The deadline is 28 October.

Artist impression of prospection activities in a Moon Base. (Credit: ESA – P. Carril)

Some 250 missions to the Moon will launch over the next decade alone, according to market analysists Northern Sky Research, which the company predicts will activate a €100 billion lunar economy, creating jobs and prosperity on Earth.

ESA will either lead or be an international partner in many of these missions, including those that envisage a permanent lunar presence. Space companies based in Europe and Canada involved in Moonlight would thus have an anchor customer, while being free to sell lunar communications and navigations services and solutions to whoever else wants to buy them.

ESA is going to the Moon together with its international partners. On 19 September, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson signed a joint statement on lunar exploration cooperation at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. NASA’s Artemis programme plans to return humans to the Moon. In cooperation with ESA and other partners, NASA intends to build the lunar Gateway – an outpost in orbit around the Moon that will serve as the staging point for both robotic and crewed exploration of the lunar south pole.

ESA is constructing the European Service Modules that will power all Artemis Orion spacecraft to the Moon and back, as well as a habitat and refuelling elements for Gateway plus a communications module that will pave the way for Moonlight.

ESA has already initiated the Lunar Pathfinder project to provide initial communications services to early lunar missions, which will also help to prepare for the next stage with Moonlight. The Lunar Pathfinder will also include a navigation payload demonstrator, which will allow positioning in lunar orbit using GPS and Galileo systems for the first time, and is due to launch in 2025.

ESA’s European Large Logistics Lander – a lunar lander that could be used to supply the proposed lunar village or deliver scientific missions to the Moon’s surface – is being designed so that it can benefit from the Moonlight constellation for telecommunications and navigation.

Using Moonlight means the lander will not have to only rely on a line-of-sight connection with the Gateway. Moonlight will improve the accuracy of its landing, and enable access to areas out of sight of the Gateway. Science missions using Moonlight will be able to live stream more high-quality video than would be possible without it, increasing the volumes of data and the speed of transfer and thus enabling better science to be done.

Once Moonlight is in place, companies could create new services in industries such as education, media and entertainment – as well as inspiring young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths, which creates a highly qualified future workforce.

Moonlight will be part of the ESA proposals due to be approved and funded at the Council of Ministers in November – a meeting of government ministers from each of ESA’s 22 Member States that last met in 2019 to establish ESA’s strategic direction and funding.

Space companies in Europe and Canada will be invited to tender for the initial Moonlight work in December.