THE UK Space Agency has announced over £50 million for UK companies to develop communication and navigation services for missions to the Moon.
The new funding is part of the European Space Agency’s Moonlight programme, which aims to launch a constellation of satellites into orbit around the Moon, from 2028.
This will allow future astronauts, rovers, science experiments and other equipment to communicate, share large amounts of data including high-definition video, and navigate safely across the lunar surface.
The UK is one of the two leading international investors in the programme, alongside Italy, placing the UK space sector at the heart of this new frontier.
Independent research suggests more than 250 missions to the Moon are due to launch over the next decade alone, generating almost £90 billion in global economic returns and thousands of new jobs.
The UK space and satellite sector currently employs 47,000 people across the country and is set to grow further, with increased government support.
Minister of State in the UK Department of Science, Technology and Innovation George Freeman said:
“Space and satellite science and technology are at the forefront of our Science Superpower mission, which is why we have set out a 10 year Industrial Strategy for Space to attract the billions of commercial investment now coming into this sector, already worth £16.5 billion to the UK economy.
“This new funding will help UK companies provide satellite services for the fast-emerging lunar communications economy for years to come, deepening our international collaborations through ESA, kick-starting the lunar economy and inspiring a new generation of scientists and explorers.”
NASA plans to send astronauts to the Moon in the coming years and, working with ESA and other partners, intends to put a new space station called the Gateway with living quarters for astronauts in lunar orbit. The UK space industry is making important contributions to the Gateway, including the refuelling module.
Reliable navigation and communication capabilities are essential for these missions, and others like it, to succeed, supporting a future sustainable human presence on the Moon. Creating a shared telecommunications and navigation service can reduce some of the complexity and reduce overall costs.
Companies involved in Moonlight will be able to create a telecommunication and navigation service for ESA, while being free to sell lunar services and solutions to other agencies and commercial ventures.
Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said:
“This is an incredibly exciting time for space exploration, with the successful Artemis I mission paving the way for humanity’s return to the Moon in the coming years.
“These endeavours are more international and more commercial than ever before – and by playing a leading role in the ESA Moonlight programme, we are opening up significant opportunities for UK companies to build on their extensive expertise in satellite technology and benefit from the new lunar economy.”
The UK already leads the Lunar Pathfinder project to provide initial communications services to the Moon, which will also help to prepare for the next stage of Moonlight. The Lunar Pathfinder spacecraft, designed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), will include a navigation payload demonstrator to allow positioning and navigation on the lunar surface using satellites for the first time, similar to how we use satellite navigation on Earth. It is due to launch from 2025.
Science missions using Moonlight will be able to live stream high-quality video, increasing the volume of data and the speed of transfer, vastly improving the potential science outcomes.
Lunar rovers equipped with Moonlight receivers will be able to navigate autonomously with high accuracy on the lunar surface, enhancing mission opportunities and potential applications, and lowering their associated risk and cost.
UKspace Chair, John Hanley, said:
“By investing in UK companies to develop communication and navigation services for the Moonlight Programme, the Government is not only supporting innovation and technological advancement, but delivering a critical component of the forthcoming vibrant and thriving lunar economy.
“We have seen previous lunar endeavours stimulate a range of unexpected technologies and processes used to enhance life on Earth, such as in food safety protocols or reflective insulation. This Moonlight investment will contribute to the next generation of advancements in lunar exploration that will lead to further scientific discoveries and technological improvements – all of which have the potential to benefit our lives on Earth.”
As a founding member of ESA, which is independent of the EU, the UK space sector plays a leading role in international missions and innovative commercial programmes. The UK committed £207 million to ESA telecommunications programmes during the Ministerial Council Meeting in Paris in November 2022. The £51 million announced today for Moonlight is part of that commitment.