Up for Grabs: Why America Must Map the Moon

June 13, 2023 Topic: Space Region: Americas Blog Brand: Techland Tags: SpaceTechnologySatelliteMoon

Up for Grabs: Why America Must Map the Moon

The United States stands to reap enormous benefits from being the nation that underpins lunar infrastructure and science services.

When Lewis and Clark began their journey across the United States to the Pacific Ocean, they carried maps, a compass, and used the stars to navigate. Now, humans have a chance to settle among the stars, with several prototype Moon settlements being tested and the cost of space launches continuing to fall. However, just like Lewis and Clark, engineers will need to accurately map and survey the Moon in order to make human settlement a possibility. Technology that can replicate our Global-Positioning System (GPS) on the Moon will be the fastest way to map the surface of the Moon and lay the groundwork for future settlement. This would allow space crews to determine their precise location on the surface of the Moon, and easily navigate around the celestial body. But most importantly, it would put the United States in the driver’s seat to use the Moon’s resources and explore other celestial bodies.

GPS as we know it on Earth uses a system of satellites to determine the location of objects on Earth’s surface. It’s made up of a constellation of twenty-four satellites that all orbit Earth in a precise path, making a full orbit around the Earth in twelve hours. While orbiting Earth, these satellites constantly send out radio signals to receivers on the ground, which then can be used to determine a location on the Earth’s surface based on the time it takes for the signal to reach the receiver. 

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has previously mapped the Moon before the Apollo missions, but is currently working with space industry stakeholders to develop a version of the World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS 84), a standard coordinate reference chart for determining latitude and longitude on Earth, for the Moon. Having the ability to apply a reference frame to the Moon will allow astronauts and crewed space missions to easily identify where they are in relation to other points on the Moon. Establishing transmission stations on the Moon may be the long-term solution, but navigating spacecraft to the Moon’s surface to determine the best location for these stations remains a problem. The U.S. Space Force and NASA have determined that some existing technology could be repurposed for Moon navigation. 

Scientists from NASA’s jet propulsion lab in California have determined that existing satellites—eighty-one in total—have the capabilities to allow other satellites and spacecraft to determine their position above the Moon’s surface. When satellites receive radio signals from Earth’s surface, those same signals radiate into space. With the Moon being an average of 238,855 miles away from Earth, these signals are able to help spacecraft navigate to specific positions above the Moon within 200-300 meters. Existing satellites could also help astronauts navigate where they are on the Moon’s surface, with the exception of the lunar poles, as geologic barriers like craters could block the signal from these satellites. However, satellites like the Lunar Renaissance Orbiter (LRO) can form the basis of a Moon satellite network at a low price.

The cost to manufacture smaller satellites has been dropping alongside space launch costs. Today, some satellites are able to be mass-produced, greatly reducing the cost of launching them into orbit. By pairing smaller satellites in lunar orbit alongside the LRO, we could begin establishing a satellite network for future lunar navigation. 

The United States stands to reap enormous benefits from being the nation that underpins lunar infrastructure and science services. Not only will these systems benefit our astronauts and ability to place a permanent settlement on the Moon, but it will also deter other actors from setting up their own lunar systems which could have military applications. The Moon is currently up for grabs, and the first nation to establish basic navigational infrastructure will have a massive advantage when it comes to establishing and maintaining a settlement on the Moon. The U.S. should be the one in control of these crucial lunar settlement building blocks.

Roy Mathews is an Innovation Fellow at Young Voices. He is a graduate of Bates College and former Fulbright Fellow in Indonesia. He has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Boston Herald, and National Review.

Image: Image courtesy of NASA.