March 1, 2024

NASA will demonstrate autonomous navigation system on the Moon

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IM-1, the first servicing launch of NASA’s commercial launch program for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander, will carry multiple payloads to the Moon, including Lunar Node-1, demonstrating autonomous navigation via radio beacon to support geolocation accurate and inter-lunar navigation. orbiters, landers and surface personnel. NASA’s CLPS initiative oversees the industry’s development of small landers and robotic rovers to support NASA’s Artemis campaign. Credit: NASA

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IM-1, the first servicing launch of NASA’s commercial launch program for Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander, will carry multiple payloads to the Moon, including Lunar Node-1, demonstrating autonomous navigation via radio beacon to support geolocation accurate and inter-lunar navigation. orbiters, landers and surface personnel. NASA’s CLPS initiative oversees the industry’s development of small landers and robotic rovers to support NASA’s Artemis campaign. Credit: NASA

When the second delivery of Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) launches to the Moon in mid-February, its NASA payloads will include an experiment that could change the way human explorers, rovers and spacecraft independently track their precise location on the Moon and beyond. cis. -lunar space.

Demonstrating autonomous navigation, the Lunar Node-1 experiment, or LN-1, is a radio beacon designed to support precise geolocation and navigation observations for landers, surface infrastructure, and astronauts by digitally confirming their positions on the Moon relative to others. ships, terrestrial. moving stations or mobile vehicles. These radio beacons can also be used in space to aid orbital maneuvers and guide landers to a successful landing on the lunar surface.

“Imagine getting verification of a lighthouse on the coast you are approaching, rather than waiting for the message from the home port you left days earlier,” said Evan Anzalone, LN-1 principal investigator and navigation systems engineer. on NASA’s Marshall Space Flight. Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“What we seek to provide is a lunar network of beacons, offering sustainable, localized navigation capabilities that allow lunar spacecraft and ground crews to confirm their position quickly and accurately, rather than relying on Earth.”

The system is designed to operate as part of a broader navigation infrastructure anchored by a series of lunar-orbiting satellites acquired under NASA’s Lunar Communications Relay and Navigation Systems project. Together, future versions of LN-1 would utilize standards defined by LunaNet to provide interoperable navigation reference signals from surface beacons and orbital assets.

Currently, navigation beyond Earth relies heavily on point-to-point services provided by NASA’s Deep Space Network, an international array of giant radio antennas that transmit positioning data to interplanetary spacecraft to keep them on course. These measurements are typically relayed back to Earth and processed on the ground to deliver information to the traveling vehicle.


Credit: NASA

But when seconds count during orbital maneuvers or between explorers traversing uncharted areas of the lunar surface, the LN-1 offers a timely improvement, Anzalone said.

The CubeSat-sized experiment is one of six payloads included in NASA’s delivery manifest for Intuitive Machines of Houston, which will launch via a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Designated IM-1, the launch is the company’s first under NASA’s CLPS initiative, which oversees the industry’s development, testing and launch of small robotic landers and rovers that support NASA’s Artemis campaign.

The Nova-C probe is scheduled to land near Malapert A, a lunar impact crater in the Moon’s South Pole region.

The LN-1 relies on networked computer navigation software known as MAPS (Multi-spacecraft Autonomous Positioning System). Developed by Anzalone and NASA Marshall researchers, MAPS was successfully tested on the International Space Station in 2018 using NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation testbed.

NASA Marshall engineers conducted all structural design, thermal and electronic systems development, and integration and environmental testing of LN-1 as part of the NASA-provided Lunar Payloads project, funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

Anzalone and his team delivered the payload in 2021, having carried out construction of the payload during the COVID pandemic. Since then, they have refined operational procedures, performed thorough testing of the integrated flight system, and in October 2023, oversaw the installation of the LN-1 on the Intuitive Machines lander.


Lunar Node-1, an autonomous navigation payload that will change the way human explorers safely traverse the Moon’s surface and live and work in lunar orbit, awaits liftoff as part of Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, the first under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The LN-1 was developed, built and tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Credit: NASA/Máquinas Intuitivas

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Lunar Node-1, an autonomous navigation payload that will change the way human explorers safely traverse the Moon’s surface and live and work in lunar orbit, awaits liftoff as part of Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission, the first under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative. The LN-1 was developed, built and tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Credit: NASA/Máquinas Intuitivas

The payload will transmit information briefly each day during the trip to the moon. After the lunar landing, the LN-1 team will perform a full systems check and begin continuous operations 24 hours after landing.

NASA’s Deep Space Network will receive its transmissions, capturing telemetry, Doppler tracking and other data and relaying it back to Earth. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, will also monitor LN-1 transmissions during the mission, which is scheduled to last approximately 10 days.

Eventually, as the technology is proven and its infrastructure expanded, Anzalone hopes LN-1 will evolve from a single beacon on the lunar coast to a key piece of a much broader infrastructure, helping NASA evolve your navigation system into something more akin to a busy metropolitan subway network, where each train is tracked in real time as it travels its complex route.

“Spacecraft, surface vehicles, base camps and exploratory digs, even individual astronauts on the lunar surface,” Anzalone said. “LN-1 could connect them all and help them navigate more precisely, creating a reliable and more autonomous lunar network.”

Marshall’s LN-1 team is already discussing future Moon-to-Mars applications for LN-1 with NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program – which oversees more than 100 missions for NASA and partners. They are also consulting with JAXA (Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) and ESA (European Space Agency), assisting in the effort to unite space nations through an interconnected and interoperable global architecture.

“Eventually, these same technologies and applications that we are proving on the Moon will be vital on Mars, making the next generations of human explorers safer and more self-sufficient as they lead us into the solar system,” Anzalone said.

NASA’s CLPS initiative allows NASA to purchase a full commercial lunar robotic delivery service from major aerospace industry contractors. The provider is responsible for launch services, owns the lander design and leads landing operations.

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