Thursday 20 May 2021 3:34 pm

UK companies to help plot 'constellation' of satellites around the Moon

UK space companies have begun developing navigation and telecommunication capabilities to put a ‘constellation’ of satellites around the Moon, according to the European Space Agency (ESA) today.

With funding from the UK Space Agency, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), Inmarsat and MDA Space and Robotics have bagged £2m contracts with the ESA for the satellite mission.

The plan, under what is called the Moonlight initiative, is to set up a small space station in lunar orbit that will act as a solar-powered communication hub.

The permanent Moon-based space station will also house astronauts, host a science laboratory and a holding bay for rovers and other robots.

The ambitious design is so Europe and the UK will be able to take regular trips to “Earth’s natural satellite” rather than one-off expeditions, the ESA said.

The plans will rely heavily on navigation and telecommunication capabilities – as the ESA hopes radio astronomers could set up observatories on the far side of the Moon. 

“Britain’s expertise in navigation and telecommunications is second to none and this first of its kind commercial service – spearheaded by some of the UK’s most innovative businesses – demonstrates our ambition for the UK to become a world-leading space nation,” science minister Amanda Solloway said.

Navigation & robotics

Guildford-based SSTL will lead the first consortium in planning how space companies could provide communication and navigation services around the Moon.

“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,” ESA’s director of telecommunications and integrated applications, Elodie Viau, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, London-based Inmarsat and MDA Space and Robotics are looking into commercial activities in orbit as well as on the Moon’s surface.

“We are delighted to contribute our expertise as part of this exciting consortium study on the communication and navigation needs of the future lunar economy and hope that our communications technologies, developed in the UK, will form the baseline for this new and innovative service,” managing director of MDA Space and Robotics, David Kenyon, said.

The US’ Nasa, which is planning to return to the Moon by 2024, will also work alongside the ESA and other partners.