Standard lunar reference clock required for future communication

A spectacular view of the Moon during the recently completed Artemis 1 mission.

A spectacular view of the Moon during the recently completed Artemis 1 mission.
Photo: NASA

As the race back to the moon heats up – with plans for long-term human habitation – reliable communication is a fundamental issue. With dozens of plans for experiments of various sizes and scopes that need to communicate with each other and Earth, the European Space Agency has opened a call for help to build the necessary package of telecommunications services. Calleged “Moonlight”, the system will include a standardized moon clock.

Today ESA opened up applications for private companies to help with the Moonlight program. The program will see the launch of three or four satellites to the moon, which will be deployed in its orbit to provide constant telecommunications and navigation coverage to the lunar surface and back to Earth. The orbits of the satellite constellation will be optimized to cover the Moon’s south pole, which was chosen as its location Artemis mission astronauts will eventually country.

“This will allow missions to maintain links to and from Earth, and guide them on their way around the moon and on the surface, so they can focus on their core tasks,” Wael-El Daly, systems engineer for Moonlight, said in an ESA post. “But Moonlight will also need a shared common timescale to get missions linked together and simplify position fixes.”

The orbits of the Moonlight satellites will be optimized for the lunar south pole, which is the expected landing site for future crewed missions to the Moon.

Moonshine needs a common lunar reference time to provide accurate positional data to users on the lunar surface. To keep time on various lunar missions in the past, each mission synchronized its clocks with those on Earth and used antennas in space to correct from drifts in time. ESA says that this solution will prove to be insufficient space agencies plan to send more people and autonomous rovers than ever to the moon. These different teams may need to communicate with each other, meet or conduct joint observations, and a standardized clock can smooth out problems in that regard.

said the ESA in a post that discussions about timekeeping on the moon began during a meeting at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands last November. But talks about a standardized lunar time came as part of a larger effort to agree on and establish NASA LunaNeta network of digital architecture that can be used for communication and navigation on the Moon.

“LunaNet is a framework of mutually agreed standards, protocols and interface requirements that allow future lunar missions to work together, conceptually similar to what we did on Earth for the joint use of GPS and Galileo,” said Javier Ventura-Traveset, ESA’s Moonlight Navigation Chief. “Now, in the lunar context, we have the opportunity to agree on our interoperability approach from the very beginning, before the systems are actually implemented.”

There is no set launch date for Moonlight satellites, but ESA plans to use Lunar Pathfinder as a precursor to the Moonlight initiative. Pathfinder, due to launch in 2025, and (eventually) Moonlight will help connect astronauts on the lunar surface, such as those who are part of NASA’s Return to the Moon.

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