An illustration depicts a European communications satellite providing links to the moon, other spacecraft and the Earth. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency
May 20 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency plans to build a communications and navigation network of satellites around the moon to aid future missions, including NASA's planned Artemis astronaut crews.
The agency has initiated a study of potential designs for the network, named Moonlight, that would tap private companies for proposals. Those firms include the United Kingdom's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Italy-based spaceflight services company Telespazio.
"We're looking forward to discussing how Moonlight can support global exploration efforts, discussing it with our partners, such as NASA," David Parker, the agency's director of human and robotic exploration, said during a virtual online press conference Thursday.
"I'm basically looking forward to ESA being a customer of Moonlight when it becomes operational," Parker said.
NASA is aware that ESA is working on lunar communication technology, a space agency spokeswoman said. But NASA didn't respond immediately to follow-up questions about the Moonlight program specifically.
ESA believes it is the first to tackle delivery of such a commercial communication service at the moon, Parker said.
"We have the opportunity to be the first," he said.
Officials said ESA would start the effort with a modest initial budget, but officials said they didn't have that figure during the press conference. The agency's press office did not respond to requests for the number afterward.
ESA plans to launch an initial satellite, the Lunar Pathfinder, to the moon in 2024 to study orbits and communication capabilities. The Pathfinder spacecraft already is under construction by Surrey Satellite.
Having a permanent communications network at the moon would mean other spacecraft wouldn't have to carry their own systems, said Paul Verhoef, ESA's director of navigation.
Eventually, the network could also provide GPS navigation and location services on the moon, Verhoef said.
"My suspicion is we can do complete communication service with three of four satellites," he said. "It may be that it is necessary to add a number of satellites, which would be much smaller, only for the navigation purposes."
The United Kingdom Space Agency believes there will be demand for Moonlight soon, said Graham Turnock, the agency's chief executive.
A network of satellites around the moon also would work for missions on the far side, or "dark side" where such communication with Earth is more difficult, Turnock said.
"This kind of infrastructure will make other missions much simpler," he said.