NGA Leads NRS Development for Moon
NGA Leads Development of Navigational Reference System for the Moon
New framework would power a GPS-like service for travelers on the lunar surface.
A new multinational race to space has rekindled interest in an old friend: the moon.
Some 50 years since the last astronaut walked on the lunar surface, U.S. government and commercial entities are setting their sights again on the moon amid heightened global competition.
And, they are turning to another old friend — NGA — to show them the way.
Just as NGA’s predecessor agencies first mapped the moon ahead of the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, NGA today is working with NASA to develop a new positioning and navigation system to guide future visitors around the moon’s surface as accurately and safely as the Global Positioning System, or GPS, does on Earth.
“Our purpose is safe navigation on the lunar surface,’’ explained Trevor Garner, Ph.D., senior GEOINT officer for space in NGA’s Office of Geomatics. “There is no GPS on the moon.’’
Working with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Space Force, U.S. Space Command and other agencies and universities, NGA is planning for and creating a new and complete Lunar Reference System designed to provide the precision and accuracy necessary for future lunar navigation.
Given NASA’s plans for further planetary exploration and the U.S. Space Command’s vast area of responsibility into the outer reaches of space, the Lunar Reference System is likely to be the first of many celestial body reference systems NGA will be tasked with in the years ahead.
Powering ‘GPS’ on the Moon
Technically, NGA’s role isn’t creating GPS for the moon. The Lunar Reference System is the coordinate framework that will power a GPS-like transmission system being built by NASA and others.
That’s what NGA’s World Geodetic System 1984, commonly referred to as WGS 84, currently provides for GPS here on Earth. GPS is the delivery system. WGS 84, which is maintained and updated by NGA, is the critical infrastructure and internal framework that makes it work.
Most people don’t even know they are using WGS 84 when they access navigation systems and apps on their cell phones and in their cars. WGS 84 provides positioning data such as longitude, latitude and altitude and also incorporates timing and models for gravity and magnetic fields — all behind the scenes to guide an estimated five billion human and automated GPS users daily.
Of course, all this valuable Earth reference data and modeling is useless on the moon, which has a more variable terrain and gravity field than the Earth and remains largely unexplored.
“The biggest challenge we have is getting the data,’’ Garner said.
To create the coordinate reference system, much more moon data will need to be collected. Any existing lunar data will need to be merged into one system, and all the data and models will need to be standardized to ensure safety and consistency.
Garner expects the Lunar Reference System to be completed within the next several years, but not likely in time for NASA’s next planned human mission to land back on the moon — the Artemis III trek, which is slated for 2025. However, the team is working to have the LRS completed within the next decade, which could support NASA’s subsequent plans for an orbiting lunar space station and a lunar base on the moon’s South Pole.
In preparation for the lunar space station and lunar base and distinct from the Artemis human missions, NASA separately has also contracted with more than a dozen private-sector companies to transport and place robotic experiments and other payloads on the lunar surface between now and 2028.
Global Rush to the Moon and Beyond
By no means is the U.S. government alone in its accelerating efforts in moon travel and exploration.
Rival powers such as China and Russia are actively pursuing wide-ranging lunar and space quests. Even smaller nations such as Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates are expected to place probes or rovers on the moon. The commercial explosion of space-launch, space-tourism and other space-related enterprises internationally is further driving the push to the moon and beyond.
NASA estimates over the next 10 years, human activity in “cislunar space’’ — defined as the three-dimensional region of space beyond Earth’s geosynchronous orbit but still within the gravitational influence of the Earth and/or the moon — will be equal to or exceed all such activity occurring in that region since the Space Age began in 1957.
According to the White House’s National Cislunar Science & Technology Strategy report , published November 2022, cislunar space offers tremendous promise for the advancement of science, technology and exploration.
“Cislunar space provides opportunities for answering many of the highest priority questions in planetary science, opportunities to explore the history of our Solar System and Sun, a radio-quiet environment that can catalyze a new generation of radio astronomy, the potential for economic growth in space and a valuable region for testing human exploration technologies and operations to enable crewed exploration to Mars and beyond,’’ the report states.
Competitive Challenge, Cooperative Opportunity
While cislunar space may represent a gateway to the rest of the solar system, the moon’s surface itself represents a critical region of cislunar space, presenting near- and longer-term prospects for mining natural resources, conducting scientific experiments, preparing deep-space journeys, fueling satellites and improving space communications.
The potential economic and strategic opportunities make clear why so many nations and companies are turning their attention to Earth’s nearest neighbor. However, such escalating interest and activities could make for chaotic, haphazard and unsafe conditions without standardization and order on the lunar surface.
NGA’s Lunar Reference System intends to do just that — helping to navigate the dual realities of global competition and global cooperation on the moon.
Like WGS 84, “the Lunar Reference System will be a public utility that NGA provides for use by all,’’ Garner said. “We will allow Russia and China to use it if they want to. It reduces the risk for all of us if we’re all using the same street signs.’’