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Building a planetary navigation system

August 1, 2021  - By
Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio

Soon, global navigation will no longer suffice. Humanity is preparing to return to the Moon after more than half a century. U.S., European, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Russian governments and companies want a slice of the “eighth continent.”

NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put astronauts on the Moon’s south pole in 2024, will explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. Robots and humans will search for, and potentially extract, resources such as water, which also can be converted into other usable resources, including oxygen and fuel.

Astronauts searching for spots where robotic spacecraft have pointed to the ice on the lunar map and for equipment sent on ahead of them will need precise navigation guidance. So will astronauts and ground controllers operating the Gateway outpost in Moon orbit and the Orion spacecraft. This will require extending the reach of our Earth-centric positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) systems to cover our planet’s nearest neighbor.

A permanent and reliable source of PNT on the Moon will reduce the amount of gear each mission will have to develop and carry, making more funding and rocket-lift capabilities available for scientific equipment. It also will free bandwidth on NASA’s communications networks, which have historically provided navigation services near the Moon.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are laying the foundations for this navigation system. Their efforts include the development of a special receiver able to pick up GPS signals that, already very weak on Earth, are extremely so on the Moon; NASA’s LunaNet communications and navigation architecture; ESA’s public-private Pathfinder satellite navigation and communication mission, due to launch into lunar orbit by the end of 2023; and ESA’s Moonlight initiative, which will establish lunar communication and navigation services.

Studies already have proven that it is possible to navigate between Earth and the Moon, as well as on the latter’s surface, using the side lobes of the signals from GNSS satellites. In 2023, the Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment (LuGRE), developed in partnership with the Italian Space Agency, will demonstrate and refine this capability on the Moon’s Mare Crisium basin. NASA will use data gathered from LuGRE to refine operational lunar GNSS systems for future missions.

Besides the low signal power, other challenges to using GNSS satellites for Moon navigation include geometry, with all the signals coming from a relatively small portion of the sky; the fact that in polar regions the Earth would be low on the horizon and therefore GNSS signals could easily be blocked by hills or crater rims; and the complete occultation of the signals when moving beyond the side of the Moon always facing Earth. Meeting this last challenge will require at least a couple of Moon-orbiting satellites. (Artificial satellites orbiting our planet’s natural satellite as a supplement to the artificial satellites orbiting our planet…)

The Moon will be our steppingstone to Mars. I bet it will not be long before the Institute of Navigation establishes a Planetary Navigation division!

About the Author:


Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@gpsworld.com or 541-543-0525.

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