Illustration of the LunaNet architecture concept Credit: NASA/Reese Patillo
LunaNet, DTN, ESC 

LunaNet Team Showcases Architecture for Moon at Small Satellite Conference

Presenting LunaNet’s Vast Benefits at SmallSat 2020

By Katherine Schauer

September 8, 2020

“As NASA establishes a sustained presence on the Moon and ventures further into the solar system, the need for a robust interplanetary communications and navigation architecture increases. LunaNet, an extensible and scalable lunar communications and navigation architecture, is being developed to answer this growing need. The LunaNet architecture will provide users with three services: networking services, positioning, navigation and timing services, and science utilization services. With LunaNet in place, users will experience an operational environment similar to that experienced by users on Earth.”

- An excerpt from the LunaNet SmallSat Conference paper, “LunaNet: a Flexible and Extensible Lunar Exploration Communications and Navigation Infrastructure and the Inclusion of SmallSat Platforms.”

In August, the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference took place virtually, drawing in an audience from over 230 countries worldwide. This year, LunaNet team members from a variety of fields across the Goddard Space Flight Center community published a paper with the conference and participated in virtual presentations. The team described how the architecture leverages Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) to create a “solar system internet” and the vast benefits a network approach can bring to space communications. LunaNet is NASA’s planned communications and navigation architecture that will allow rovers, landers, orbiters, and astronauts to all be connected to a single network, enabling interoperability between multiple assets - including SmallSats.

During the presentations, Kendall Mauldin, Deputy Chief of ESC’s Technology Enterprise and Mission Pathfinder Office (TEMPO), gave an overview of LunaNet and focused on how SmallSats can play an impactful role in the development and usage of the architecture. LunaNet provides users with three standard service types: networking services, positioning, navigation, and timing services, and science utilization services. With LunaNet, missions can be providers of these services, meaning they conduct their science objectives while also providing data to the network, or they can be users of the architecture, taking advantage of the services while conducting their objectives without feeding data to the network. It is expected that LunaNet will both enable lunar SmallSat missions and SmallSats will enable LunaNet’s continued growth and evolution.

The new era of lunar exploration presents many opportunities for SmallSats, especially since their small size makes it possible to add additional missions on any launch to the Moon. Having access to LunaNet’s services will allow the SmallSats to have a provided link back to Earth, rather than requiring a direct-to-Earth link for each satellite. The LunaNet team showcased these benefits throughout their presentation and detailed them within their paper, “LunaNet: a Flexible and Extensible Lunar Exploration Communications and Navigation Infrastructure and the Inclusion of SmallSat Platforms.”

“The LunaNet architecture is intended to be built up by multiple partners, not just by NASA. By presenting the LunaNet concept and showcasing the benefits that its architecture can give to astronauts and other space assets, we open the door for potential future collaborations,” said David Israel, the Exploration and Space Communications’ lead architect and a primary member of the LunaNet team.

Although many conferences this year were cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SmallSat Conference decided to move to an online platform. In this way, aerospace experts were still able to share their outstanding work to over 8000 conference attendees, who came to learn about advancements in SmallSats and how an architecture like LunaNet can support an abundance of SmallSats conducting experiments at the Moon.