NASA’s Artemis program will need lunar spatial reference system

January 13, 2021  - By
We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
—Astronaut Gene Cernan’s closing words, the twelfth and last person on the moon as he stepped back into the Apollo XVII Lunar Module on December 13, 1972.
Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

Apollo was about vision, courage and discovery. Apollo helped unravel the mysteries of the moon — a serene, desolate, and barren place, bleached by the sun, and covered in a pale, gray, abrasive dust made up of microscopic, razor sharp, glass-like shards called regolith that is 60 feet deep in places.

Beneath the regolith is the bedrock of the moon — the Lunafirma.

The next phase of exploration is building a permanent base station on the moon, aptly named Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. It would be fitting when mankind returns that the next person who steps out onto the lunar surface were a woman.

Figure 1. (Photo: NASA)

Figure 1. (Photo: NASA)

Artemis Moon Log/Program Entry Date 42: Earth Day is Tuesday, November 4, 2025
The regolith mining operations are proceeding as expected. All operations are 100% solar power until additional mobile thorium reactor units arrive. The only existing thorium reactor unit is the Clavius Crater water extraction operation. Construction of the Selene-1 Moonbase has encountered a setback. No other issues are reported.

The regolith in the surrounding plain is 6 meters deep. The Miners have not experienced any issues. The electrostatic power suits are repelling the abrasive dust better than expected. The Miners have cleared a 50 m2 area down to the bedrock. From the Gateway observation deck, it appears as a small square crater. The Miners are working non-stop on rotating shifts clearing regolith, recharging, replacing parts, or in transit.

Analysis of the regolith reveals a uniform distribution of 21% silica, 13% aluminum, 10% calcium, 10% iron, 5% magnesium, and 2% sodium and titanium. Minor amounts of chromium, phosphorus, and potassium are present. Hydrogen is 0.0027%. The metals are all oxides containing 40% elemental oxygen, which is being separated during processing for later use.

West about 200 km, towards Mare Crisium, the gravitational anomalies increase but within the Selene-1 Moonbase crater the anomalies are negligible. Geospatial analysis of the drill cores show an extensive concentration of lithium beneath a 12-meter-thick layer of basalt east of Ginzel Crater. Towards the south are increased concentrations of titanium and tungsten. Ejection debris discovered during the regolith mining operation showed traces of neodymium. The estimated trajectory of the ejecta points to it coming from the Moiseev Crater complex. An expeditionary rover is in route to collect samples and will arrive in 6 hours. Readings from those samples will be in the next log report.

The Parabolic Solar Powered (PSP) laser torches in the open crater basin are performing as expected. The Constructors are 3D fusing the regolith into silicate glass forms and transporting them to staging areas for later construction. The higher-than-normal content of iron in the regolith is giving the glass forms a reddish hue.

At the south pole, the water extraction operation at Clavius Crater has been operating uninterrupted for 816 hours. The thorium reactor is powering the entire operation. The smelter is distilling volatiles out of the regolith at the rate of 1m3 every 8 hours extracting a liter of water every 24 hours. The operation is on schedule for the two 100-liter tanks of water for delivery to the Selene-1 Moonbase by the due date.

There are five 4G cellular towers around the perimeter of the Selene-1 Moonbase and regolith mining area at 3 km intervals. The cellular array is providing accuracies of 1 millimeter allowing for precision mining, drilling, construction, and transportation. As the operation expands, more towers will be added. Two more towers are stationed at Clavius Crater. The 360° cameras and radar provide continuous surveillance and monitoring.

Testing of the 3D vision and synthetic neural response systems of the robots is complete and all of them are operational. The real-time connectivity with the robots allows controllers onboard the Gateway to remote link into any of the robots using virtual headsets and haptic body suits for full-immersion control. AI is constantly scanning for anything unusual and alerts the controllers to remote in; otherwise, the robots operate continuously and efficiently. The Miners are clearing nearly 5m3 of regolith every 24 hours during light conditions.

Phase I is underway. Miners are leveling off the exposed bedrock to begin construction of the landing pad. Once finished, the Constructors will use the PSP laser torches to begin fusing together the silicate glass blocks to make the landing pad. Afterwards, The Miners will begin Phase II and lay the foundation for the railgun to propel the filled mineral containers back to Earth. Both Phase I and Phase II are on schedule.

The setback encountered during construction of the Selene-1 main base station is due to excessive heat build-up. The Excavators are clearing the floors and shaping the walls within the lava tube. However, the heat from the laser torches is building-up and shutting down the machines prematurely. When the ambient temperatures exceed 160°C the machines shutdown to protect their electrostatic coatings. Having no atmosphere and no wind the heat is not dissipating. The fluid in the heat exchangers is overheating. Until directed otherwise, the Excavators are doing 90-minute shifts and the Torches for 35 minutes. The Torches have to fuse together the support beams and the silicate glass protective layering behind the Excavators to preserve structural integrity. A software update set the laser torches to pulse fire extending the heat build-up for an additional 5 minutes. Only 15 meters have been cleared but the inflatable habitats require at least another 85 meters into the lava tube. The setback pushes back the date for completing the base station by approximately 620 hours. A temporary external module can house the astronauts for their return on April 19, 2026 until Selene-1 is completed.

The above fictional account of a Moon Log entry for the Artemis program is based on NASA’s mid-October announcement selecting Nokia to build a 4G network on the moon.

An in-depth look at the announcement holds interest for the GIS community.

The Artemis program will be heavily dependent on spatial technologies and require a Lunar Spatial Reference System. However, the Moon has significant challenges. There is no constellation of satellites orbiting the Moon to provide precise location data like GPS satellites do on Earth, and it is not possible to develop such a satellite system around the moon because the moon’s gravitational center is lopsided and weighted towards Earth due to tidal lock. This causes orbital decay of lunar satellites until they eventually crash into the lunar surface.

However, there are four orbital inclinations that allow for indefinite low orbits and may provide for a future Lunar Positioning System (LPS). Such a system would be extremely costly, so a less expensive and more immediate LPS will be a ground-based cellular network array; and 4G is preferred over 5G because it offers longer ranges, which is why NASA selected Nokia. NASA is working on other solutions through the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program.

Figure 2: Unified Geologic Map of the Moon Orthographic projections of the "Unified Geologic Map of the Moon" showing the geology of the Moon’s near side (left) and far side (right) with shaded topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. It will serve as a reference for lunar science and future human missions to the Moon. Gravitational mass concentrations are also depicted in the image showing the majority being on the nearside while the farside is void of gravitational concentrations. Check out a video of rotating sphere. (Photo: NASA/GSFC/USGS)

Figure 2: Unified Geologic Map of the Moon. Orthographic projections of the “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” showing the geology of the Moon’s near side (left) and far side (right) with shaded topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. It will serve as a reference for lunar science and future human missions to the moon. Gravitational mass concentrations are also depicted in the image showing the majority being on the nearside while the farside is void of gravitational concentrations. Check out a video of rotating sphere. (Image: NASA/GSFC/USGS)

In a blow to science fiction novels, it will not be humans out on the barren, dust covered lunar landscape, or in the cold depths of crater shadows with pickaxes and jackhammers. It will be robots working prolonged periods in extreme temperatures running on solar power or nuclear power while constantly bombarded by cosmic rays and direct solar radiation.

Accomplishing this will require real-time communication with spatially enabled, artificially intelligent machines able to support fully immersive experiences with 3D vision headsets and haptic feedback systems so controllers at the base station wearing special suits can remote into any robot.

Due to a 2.5-second transmission delay between the Earth and the Moon, Ground Control will be limited to observation and analysis. Autonomous rockets will ferry cargo and supplies between more distant locations on the moon and ferry astronauts back and forth to the Gateway space station.

The ground-based 4G cellular towers will be mobile units with retractable towers about 25 meters high with a circular array of solar panels that will unfurl about 10 meters up from the base of the mast to protect them from the abrasive regolith dust.

Beneath the panels rovers and robots will plug in and charge their batteries as they journey to and from the base station. The towers will have 360° cameras and sensors and will provide data links and a localized spatial reference system.

However, objects in flight, such as autonomous rockets, will require other means to navigate across the moon and between the space-based cargo ships and the base station.

One solution is visual-inertial odometry (VIO). It uses one or more cameras and at least one inertial measuring device. Those components are already standard on almost every smartphone. Position accuracy using VIO is derived by feature recognition — the most prominent features on the moon are craters.

In support of this initiative, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) is sponsoring a software developer’s challenge to create algorithms for identifying circular patterns in imagery. It’s harder than you think. Learn more here.

Figure 3. (Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Figure 3. (Photo: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

The base station will be inside a lava tube beneath the moon’s surface to protect astronauts and equipment from solar radiation and micrometeor impacts. Most of the resources for the moon base will be extracted and processed in-situ, which requires spatial analysis of drill core samples to pinpoint where to mine for minerals in the subsurface layers and where to locate scarce resources such as water. The lava tubes on the moon are also valuable for mining operations but navigating an underground environment with autonomous machines poses challenges of its own, some of which are spatial awareness. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently held a developer’s challenge to address navigating in subterranean domains.

“Reaching the Moon by three-man vessels in one long bound from Earth is like casting a thin thread across space. The main effort, in the coming decades, will be to strengthen this thread; to make it a cord, a cable, and, finally, a broad highway.”
—Isaac Asimov

William Tewelow works for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is a graduate of the FAA management fellowship program. He served on special assignment to the U.S. Department of Transportation leading a national strategic geospatial iniative for the White House Open Data Partnership. He is a Geographic Information Systems Professional and a speaker for the Maryland STEMnet Scholar program. He was among the first in the nation to earn a Geospatial Specialist Certification from the U.S. Department of Labor while working at NASA Stennis Space Center. He has degrees in Geographic Information Technology, Intelligence Studies and is completing a masters degree in Organizational Management. William is a 23-year veteran for the U.S. Navy serving as a geospatial specialist, imagery intelligence specialist, a naval aviator, a meteorologist and a tactical oceanographer. He is married, enjoys writing and traveling. His favorite quote is, “A man’s mind changed by a new idea can never go back to its original dimension.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes

4 Comments on "NASA’s Artemis program will need lunar spatial reference system"

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  1. Steve Alonso says:

    Great – Nokia is building 4G on the moon – Huawei will probably have 5G up and running two years earlier.

    • Thank you for reading and dropping a comment Steve. What you say in jest is likely very true. It is no longer a space race but a race to the Moon. China has its own ambitions to mine the Moon and likely has its own program. China is not one of the countries that signed onto the Artemis Accords, which might allude to their own program. One begins to see the reason for establishing a Space Force ahead of the Artemis program.

  2. Interested to received Geo-spatial news

  3. Zane M Brubaker says:

    Wow! I’m picturing humans in suits bodily controlling robots, drills, rovers…🤯