NASA Lunar Lighthouse Beacons Navigation Odie Lander

NASA Lunar Lighthouse Beacons Navigation Odie Lander

Landing on the Moon is one thing, but not getting lost on its gray, dusty surface presents an entirely different challenge. The Apollo astronauts eyeballed their way across the lunar terrain, but NASA is hoping to develop a better navigation system for future astronauts exploring the Moon.

In late February, NASA tested an autonomous navigation system on the Moon that could be used to connect different orbiters, landers, and astronauts, turning them into a series of lighthouse beacons spread across the lunar surface. The Lunar Node 1, or LN-1, launched on board Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander, which touched down on the surface of the Moon on February 22 to deliver various payloads.

After it was deployed on the lunar surface, NASA tested LN-1 by lighting its beacon for 30 minutes, the space agency recently announced. The original plan was for LN-1 to transmit its beacon around the clock until it powered down on February 29, but it was unable to do so due to the Odysseus lander’s unfortunate position on the Moon. The lunar lander stumbled on its way down to the surface, and ended up tipped over on its side.

In fact, it was LN-1 that helped Odysseus land on the Moon after the lander’s own navigation system failed. Just hours before its scheduled descent, Odysseus’ laser rangefinders, which are designed to assess the Moon’s terrain to identify a safe landing spot, malfunctioned. In order to help guide the lander to the surface, flight engineers uploaded a software patch to repurpose LN-1 so that it could be used to navigate Odysseus to its landing spot.

The technology demonstration has already proven useful, and NASA is hoping to use it in the future to develop a network of lighthouses that point the way for spacecraft in orbit around the Moon and astronauts making their way across the lunar surface. The system would link orbiters, landers, and astronauts on the surface of the Moon, digitally verifying each explorer’s position relative to other networked spacecraft, ground stations, or rovers, according to NASA. It would then operate as part of a larger network, tracking every beacon in real time.

NASA is hoping to develop LN-1 so that it is able to provide data delivery within a matter of seconds, which may be even more useful for future missions to Mars where there’s a transmission delay from Earth that can take up to 20 minutes.

“That’s a very long time to wait for a spacecraft pilot making a precision orbital adjustment, or humans traversing uncharted Martian landscapes,” Evan Anzalone, LN-1 principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “LN-1 can make lighthouse beacons of every explorer, vehicle, temporary or long-term camp, and site of interest we send to the Moon and to Mars.”

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