October 16, 2021

The European Space Agency will be the anchor client on a commercial lunar spacecraft

2 min read

The European Space Agency has agreed to be the anchor client on the commercial lunar communications satellite being developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL).

ESA will acquire fly payloads and communications services on the Lunar Pathfinder, which is a small communications satellite that SSTL wants to deploy in 2024 as a showcase of a potential commercial lunar communications network, according to officials from SSTL and ESA.

The Lunar Pathfinder spacecraft is meant to fly in the “frozen” elliptical orbit that maintains it above the moon’s south polar regions. It will use S-band and UHF frequencies to connect with spaceships on the lunar surface and in orbit, transmitting those communications to Earth through X-band.

In a statement, the managing director of SSTL, Phil Brownnett, said, “We are happy to sign up ESA as the anchor client for communication services from the Lunar Pathfinder mission.” “We’ve been working with ESA to scope the Lunar Pathfinder expedition for the commercial sector since 2018, and we’re excited to realize our goal of providing low-cost services as well as navigation data for the lunar assets.”

The contract is valued at over $23.5 million for a minimum of 5 years, according to David Parker, who serves as the director in charge of the human and robotic space research at ESA. ESA is flying a navigation payload to test the capacity to utilize GPS and the Galileo signals around the moon, as well as a space weather study to measure radiation. NASA will also provide a laser retroreflector for accurate laser range of the spacecraft on the orbiter.

This arrangement, according to Parker, is similar to the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative of NASA, in which NASA purchases payload space on the commercial lunar landers. Still, it is not engaged in the lander’s construction or operation. He explained, “This is a case where ESA is purchasing services, buying payload, but it is not accountable for the mission.”

Parker speculated that CLPS might end up using Lunar Pathfinder. “We expect to have our requirements for the payloads aboard the spacecraft,” he said, “but we are also in talks with NASA about utilizing the data services to assist CLPS missions possibly.” This could help landers in the moon’s south polar regions, where direct connections with Earth are impossible.

In May, SSTL and Telespazio were awarded study contracts by the European Space Agency (ESA) for a project named Moonlight, which might lead to establishing the constellation of the satellite around the moon for navigation and communications services. These investigations, which will look at both technical and economic feasibility, will be completed next year.

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