LunaSAR: An Astronaut's Lunar Lifeline
By Danny Baird
October 4, 2021
With the Artemis program, NASA will establish a sustained presence on the Moon, opening more of the lunar surface to exploration than ever before. Areas of interest include: the Moon’s South Pole, where water ice might be harvested; the far side of the Moon, where unique astrophysical observations could be made; and familiar areas explored during the Apollo missions.
This explosion of lunar activity requires bold innovation to assure the safety and success of astronauts exploring the rocky surface of the Moon. To this end, the Search and Rescue (SAR) office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is applying their experience in Earth-based, satellite-aided search and rescue technologies to the unique challenges of lunar exploration.
“We’re extending terrestrial search and rescue principles to the lunar regime,” said SAR Office Chief Lisa Mazzuca. “Having this safety net will allow NASA to explore better, faster, and in a more secure manner.”
Lunar search and rescue, or LunaSAR, is a part of the detection and information services offered by NASA’s LunaNet architecture, which will extend internet-like capabilities to the Moon. LunaSAR uses LunaNet navigation data to provide distress location services for crewed and robotic missions on the lunar surface.
“LunaSAR will be an astronaut’s lunar lifeline: a lunar 911,” said SAR National Affairs Mission Manager Cody Kelly. “We’re creating a system that enables automated distress tracking and notification for a wide variety of users.”
LunaSAR development takes advantage of lessons learned in SAR’s creation of Advanced Next-Generation Emergency Locator (ANGEL) beacons. ANGEL will provide location services to Artemis astronauts during splashdown through the Earth-based satellite-aided search and rescue system, Cospas-Sarsat.
“LunaSAR is an evolution of ANGEL because it’s a low-cost, highly developed system,” said Kelly. “We’ll be using similar messaging formats, signal characteristics, and architecture.”
Since beginning work on LunaSAR, NASA has made numerous strides in development. The recently released a Draft LunaNet Interoperability Specification that includes an overview of the system and has been sent to industry and international stakeholders for comment.
“We’re specifying a common, community-wide, and internationally agreed-upon distress messaging format,” said Kelly. “LunaSAR will be compatible with both NASA and partner organizations’ plans for exploration.”
With LunaNet still in formulation, the SAR team is fielding input from a wide variety of stakeholders within NASA as well. These include surface science users, lunar base camp developers, and rover teams.
“We’re going across the Artemis enterprise to gather requirements,” said Kelly.
In terms of implementation, the first LunaNet nodes with LunaSAR capabilities are anticipated within the next few years.
“We’ve already built functioning beacons, developed message structure, and built up a core LunaSAR team,” said Kelly. “Our goal is to have the system ready for demonstration when the initial Artemis missions transition to a sustained presence at the Moon.”