NASA will destroy a GPS navigation record with its upcoming moon mission

The 'cutting-edge experiment' will enable operational GNSS systems at the moon.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the LuGRE system on the moon.NASA/Dave Ryan

GPS might rely on satellites to function on Earth, but its use in space is a little trickier.

NASA is preparing to test a new lunar navigation system that will connect to the Earth's Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) from the moon, a report from the space agency explains.

The unprecedented mission will break a record for the most distant connection to GPS at roughly 238,000 miles from Earth's surface. It will be delivered to the moon for testing by Firefly Aerospace's Blue Ghost lander no earlier than 2024, NASA says. 

GNSS is made up of satellite constellations that send positioning, timing and navigation signals down to Earth. The most common of all these is GPS, which is operated by the U.S. Space Force.

Now, NASA's Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment (LuGRE), developed as part of a collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI), will calculate the first location fixes from the moon in history. 

"LuGRE is the latest effort in a long line of missions designed to expand high-altitude GNSS capabilities," said Fabio Dovis, LuGRE co-principal investigator at the Italian Space Agency. "We've developed a cutting-edge experiment that will serve as the foundation for operational GNSS systems at the Moon."

LuGRE will connect to both GPS and Europe's GNSS constellation, Galileo, during its trip to the moon. The receiver will also conduct a number of navigation experiments while in orbit around the moon before reaching the lunar surface.

Sending a GPS receiver to the moon

Once Blue Ghost lands on the moon, the LuGRE receiver will then deploy its antenna and collect data for roughly 12 days. That data will be sent back to Earth, where it will be used to help develop lunar GNSS systems for future moon mission, including NASA's upcoming Artemis III moon landing.

"In this case, we are pushing the envelope of what GNSS was intended to do — that is, expanding the reach of systems built to provide services to terrestrial, aviation, and maritime users to also include the fast-growing space sector," J.J. Miller, deputy director of policy and strategic communications for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, explained. "This will vastly improve the precision and resilience of what was available during the Apollo missions, and allow for more flexible equipage and operational scenarios."

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The LuGRE mission is part of a wider effort to increase the effectiveness of GNSS and enable its use at ever-greater altitudes. In 2016, NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission used GPS at a record-breaking altitude of 43,500 miles (70,000 km) above the Earth. In 2019, meanwhile, MMS broke its own record by fixing its location with GPS at an altitude of 116,300 miles, almost half the distance to the moon. With LuGRE, NASA will more than double that distance when it deploys its new system from the lunar surface.