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ESA studies lay path to navigating the moon

October 2, 2020  - By
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Illustration of side-lobe signals from GPS satellites. (Image: ESA)

Illustration of side-lobe signals from GPS satellites. (Image: ESA)

Two European Space Agency studies found that the signal from navigation satellites orbiting Earth could be used to navigate the moon’s surface.

News from the European Space Agency (ESA)

To pinpoint a location accurately, a receiver — in smartphones or on a spacecraft — needs to collect and combine signals from at least four navigation satellites. The receiver determines its distance from each of the satellites by measuring the time that it takes for the signal to travel from the satellite to the receiver.

Navigation satellites aim their antennas directly at Earth. Satellites orbiting above the navigation (GPS in this image, but Europe’s own navigation system is Galileo) constellation could only hope to detect signals from Earth’s far side. Now spacecraft can make use of signals emitted sideways from navigation antennas, within what is known as “side lobes.” Just like a torch, they shine energy to the side as well as directly forward.

Navigation satellites orbit 22,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface. As they point in the direction of Earth, any spacecraft between them and Earth are served well by their signal. But around 10 years ago, engineers started demonstrating that spacecraft outside the orbit of navigation satellites could also navigate in space using “spill over” signal from the satellites.

Then in 2012, two discovery and preparation studies explored a seemingly radical question: could this spillover signal even be used to navigate our way around the moon, and if so, what kind of receiver would we need to build to be able to use these signals?

The studies found that the signal from navigation satellites orbiting Earth could be used to navigate the moon’s surface. But with the signal being so weak, they found that a new type of receiver would need to be built, and at the time there was no clear application for this.

Eight years later, ESA invested in the development of such a receiver, and is exploring whether it could be demonstrated on the Lunar Pathfinder mission. ESA is collaborating with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Goonhilly Earth Station on this mission, which will provide exciting new opportunities for science and technology demonstration. In particular, it will help lay the groundwork for providing navigation services around the moon, currently studied through two ESA NAVISP activities and culminating in the Moonlight initiative.

“We have now accurate simulation results that show that navigation signals may be used at moon orbit and provide good performances,” said Dr. Javier Ventura-Traveset, head of the Galileo Science Office and in charge of coordinating all GNSS moon activities for ESA’s Navigation Directorate. “And with an innovative receiver in Lunar Pathfinder, we could have the first ever experimental evidence of this.

Artist’s impression of the Lunar Pathfinder mission. (Image: SSTL)

Artist’s impression of the Lunar Pathfinder mission. (Image: SSTL)

“Furthermore, we are also studying how existing navigation constellations may be complemented by additional moon-orbiting satellites, providing additional ranging signals for an optimal navigation service including moon landing and moon surface operations. This is being done as part of the ESA NAVISP program and through the ESA Moonlight initiative.”

“The discovery and preparation studies have been eye-openers and they are currently being followed up by a NAVISP activity aiming to develop the highly sensitive spaceborne navigation receiver planned to fly on board Lunar Pathfinder,” said ESA Radio Navigation Engineer Pietro Giordano. “This technology will enable improved performances and much more cost-effective ways to navigate and operate missions to and around the moon.”

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