Science

UK space companies developing communication services for upcoming Moon missions

SSTL, Inmarsat and MDA UK are among those who have won contracts worth £2 million with ESA to put a constellation of satellites around the Moon.

Space companies based in the UK are “leading the way” in developing navigation and telecommunication capabilities to help support future lunar missions.

With funding from the UK Space Agency, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), Inmarsat and MDA UK are among those who have won contracts worth £2 million with the European Space Agency (ESA) to put a constellation of satellites around the Moon.

Nasa is planning to return to the Moon by 2024, with help from ESA and other partners.

It intends to set up a small space station in lunar orbit which will be home to astronauts as well as serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, and holding area for rovers and other robots.

To succeed, these ambitious plans require reliable navigation and telecommunication capabilities, the ESA said.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “People all over the world will be hugely excited by the upcoming missions to the Moon – and I’m proud that it is UK space companies who are leading the way in making these become a reality.

“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.”

As part of ESA’s Moonlight programme, SSTL Lunar – which is based in Guildford – will lead a consortium to plan how space companies could provide communication and navigation services around the Moon.

Also part of this consortium are Airbus in Portsmouth, Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, and Nottingham satellite navigation company GMV-NSL.

SSTL’s managing director Phil Brownnett said: “Leading the consortium builds on our successful collaboration with ESA for our Lunar Pathfinder communications spacecraft which will provide the world’s first commercial Lunar data relay service after launch in 2022.”

The plan will also look at the communications and navigations infrastructure required to enable surface missions operating on the far side of the Moon, to keep in constant contact with Earth.

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

Meanwhile Inmarsat, based in London, and MDA Space and Robotics Ltd (MDA UK), based in the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, are investigating the development of a service to support future exploration and commercial activities in orbit as well as on the lunar surface.

David Kenyon, managing director of MDA Space and Robotics Ltd, said: “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.”

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