GPS for the moon: Nav tech heads to space

Because printing out turn-by-turn directions isn't going to cut it in space.

Here's a head scratcher: You've got a space ship and you've just left earth's orbit. There's a space station around here somewhere, but how do you navigate to it?

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Using a surprisingly cumbersome set of tools and onboard sensors, it turns out. In an age when you can sail across an ocean or climb a remote peak and instantly determine your precise location on a small device equipped with a GPS receiver, it's easy to think humans have navigation nailed. But that network only works on our little planet. As space travel becomes a reality for a growing subset of people and commercial enterprises, navigation remains a big hurdle.

"Unlike Earth, the Moon isn't equipped with GPS so lunar spacecraft and orbital assets are essentially operating in the dark," said Matthew Kuhns, vice president of research and development at Masten Space Systems, which has been building and flying reusable rockets for nearly two decades. "As a result, each spacecraft is required to carry heavy navigation hardware and sensors on-board to estimate positioning and detect potential hazards. By establishing a shared navigation network on the Moon, we can lower spacecraft costs by millions of dollars, increase payload capacity, and improve landing accuracy near the most resource-rich sites on the Moon."

That's precisely what Masten is setting out to do thanks to a Phase II SBIR contract through the Air Force Research Laboratory's AFWERX program to develop and demonstrate a lunar positioning and navigation network prototype. If that sounds similar to GPS, it's because the system is being modeled to function similarly. Under a similar contract, Masten has already completed the concept design for the network prototype that offloads position, navigation, and timing (PNT) beacons from a spacecraft into a dedicated sensor array on the Moon. 

The next phase of the project, set to be complete in 2023, focuses on designing the PNT beacons. The devices must be extremely durable to survive lunar conditions, and for help in that arena it's turning to engineering and defense firm Leidos.

"As one of the first commercial companies sending a lunar lander to the Moon, we're in a unique position to develop and deploy a shared navigation system that can support other government and commercial missions and enable a thriving lunar ecosystem," said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney. "We are literally blazing the trail with this effort, creating the pathway for regular, ongoing, and reliable access to the Moon."

The idea is to deploy shock-proof beacon enclosures that will penetrate the lunar surface and create an autonomous surface-based network that's similar to a mesh network. The network, if effective, will enable consistent wireless connectivity to lunar spacecraft, objects, and orbital assets. 

Masten's rocket-powered lander, Xodiac, will be used to test the PNT beacons and to demonstrate payload integration and beacon operations in a terrestrial environment.