The competition heats up: A partnership between two British space companies, a smallsat manufacturer and a space antenna operator, will team up to build and test a new smallsat communications satellite in lunar orbit.
The SSTL-GES Lunar Pathfinder team are already working on the initial baseline design, with technical assistance from the European Space Agency (ESA). SSTL are designing a series of lunar communication satellites and will be building on their heritage of small satellite platforms in Low Earth orbit and Medium Earth orbit to go beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time. GES are upgrading one of the famous antennas at their Goonhilly site in Cornwall, UK, into a deep space ground asset, which will be the first element in a commercial deep space network. In addition, GES will provide a dedicated mission operations centre situated in Cornwall.
What is interesting about this is that this is a private effort to develop a modern commercial deep space communications network for future planetary missions. It would be competitive with NASA’s Deep Space Network, which presently is the only game in town and is generally made up of upgraded 1960s based technology. This new network would also eventually include a dedicated network of smallsats scattered through the solar system to act as communications relays. This is something that NASA does not provide, depending instead on the communications instruments of the planetary missions themselves.