Mar 22, 2023
ESA’s ambitious Moonlight vision of a network of communications and data relay satellites around the Moon is closer to launch with the choice of a rocket to send the first satellite to space: NASA selected Firefly Aerospace to launch SSTL’s Lunar Pathfinder under its commercial lunar payload contract last week.
Firefly's mission will see Lunar Pathfinder delivered to lunar orbit via their Blue Ghost vehicle while the Blue Ghost lander will continue to the Moon's far side and deploy a communications user terminal and radio telescope experiment to the lunar surface.
The user terminal will be used to commission Lunar Pathfinder and institute a new standard for S-band radio in space. Lunar Pathfinder will be put in operation immediately as a third experiment flying to the Moon on Firefly – the first operational radio telescope – will use the lunar communications satellite to send data to Earth from the surface of the Moon.
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ESA is supporting the development of Lunar Pathfinder through a commercial Lunar mission support services partnership with SSTL. ESA is the anchor customer for Lunar Pathfinder services and the Agency recently expanded the partnership contract with SSTL for additional communications services.
As well as offering communication services to orbiters and assets on the lunar surface, Lunar Pathfinder will also host navigation and science experiments:
Bridging the Moon and Earth
SSTL offers lunar communications for commercial and institutional customers in support of prospecting, exploring, and ultimately utilising the far side of the Moon. Lunar Pathfinder’s communications relay service will allow for more and more varied missions to operate on the Moon and provide the bridge between Earth and the lunar surface.
Exploring the far side of the Moon, particularly the South Pole Aitkin Basin, is a key area for future robotic and human exploration due to its chemical and mineral composition. The orbit of Lunar Pathfinder will allow for long visibility of the southern lunar hemisphere each day, with maximum opportunities for the transmission and reception of data between Earth and the lunar surface.
Bernhard Hufenbach, ESA’s Commercialisation and Innovation Team Leader for Human and Robotic Exploration said, “ESA is looking forward to working with NASA and Firefly to make this mission a success and demonstrate the strength of combining international cooperation and commercial procurement approaches for accelerating the development of a lunar economy.”
Sophie Bywater, Project Director at SSTL, said "SSTL is proud to be working with Firefly Aerospace in the delivery of Lunar Pathfinder to the Moon. SSTL is entering a new and exciting phase of our pioneering mission to provide commercial lunar relay communications. We are excited to be able to help unlock the potential of the lunar economy, enabling new, low-cost missions that have previously been impossible."