European space officials outlined plans on Thursday for a new Sat Nav system for the Moon as humans prepare to return to its surface after a gap of more than 50 years.
The European Space Agency is in the early stages of building a constellation of satellites that would allow missions to keep in constant touch with Earth even from the dark side of the Moon.
The proposed navigation system would allow the growing number of planned missions to land accurately and then communicate with Earth and any potential future permanent lunar base staffed by astronauts.
US space agency Nasa is planning a manned mission to the Moon in 2024 called Artemis, the first since 1972. It is just one of a number of planned missions to the Moon as nations seek to exploit cheaper space missions.
“The Moon is of interest in itself – it’s also a fantastic testing ground and the ultimate base camp for future exploration and economic activity of which we can only imagine today,” said Graham Turnock, the chief executive of the UK space agency.
The ESA communications system is designed to provide a permanent in-orbit lunar control centre allowing landing craft to dispense with expensive and heavy on-board systems currently needed for safe landings. Officials say the plans, part of its Moonlight programme, would allow rover vehicles to be explore remote parts of the Moon.
David Huw Parker, head of human and robotic exploration at ESA, said: “After 4.5 billion years of solar system history we have hardly begun to unlock its secrets.”
The proposals are part of efforts to tap into the ambitious US plans for lunar exploration. It plans to set up a small space station in lunar orbit that will be home to astronauts and can be used as a holding area for equipment and a base to re-supply missions on the surface below.
The first phase of the feasibility work is being carried out by companies from the UK and Italy, two of the 22 countries that are members of ESA.
ESA said on Thursday said that it believed it was the frontrunner for the commercial navigation operation but enters a crowded marketplace. China earlier this month landed a probe on Mars and defence experts have warned of a growing race for strategic supremacy in space.
Nations have been joined by the private sector. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is leading the charge for space tourism and has been contracted by Nasa to deliver astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.