Author: Carlos M. Entrena Utrilla – CEO
Adapted by: Alicia Vílchez Bedmar
I am often asked how we came up with the idea of Harmony. The topic of lunar communications and navigation might be trending today, but when we started working on our constellation, there was nothing out there beyond ESA’s Lunar Pathfinder. And even then, why would anyone think of a constellation? If ESA was planning a single satellite to provide service, a constellation might have seemed overkill.
However, it was just what the industry needed. This was our immediate realization when we looked at the pain-points of the upcoming lunar industry and how to make it easier for the industry to grow.
Table of contents:
The complexity of going to the Moon
Lunar missions are not a new thing. Humanity has been doing them, with a changing frequency, since the 1960s. While this does not imply that they are a known process, we have a fairly good understand of what makes them complex, and the limitations they have.
Lunar missions are expensive and risky. They are hard to finance, and failures are fairly common. The latest examples are the Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 missions, whose respective landers crashed on the Moon after a failure during descent.
Most landers also cannot provide continuous telemetry during descent. These may fail, and we may never know why, as telemetry of the last moments may be patchy at best. The fact that the Moon is far enough away to force all landings to be automated processes also does not help.
The Moon is hazardous enough to ensure that we are not able to get the most out of lunar landers. Rock boulders litter the surface, large enough to disrupt a landing but too small to be imaged from orbit.
Large antennas on Earth are required to talk to the landers. Spacecraft navigation (positioning and velocity) is based on extensive tracking sessions with these same antennas (which, by the way, cannot meet all the demand, making it hard to access them at all). Even then, the accuracy of positioning can be in the range of kilometers. On top of that, any communications in space require line of sight, so we can only send landers to the near side of the Moon.
All of this conspires to make lunar missions a fraction of what they could really be. We can only visit the near side. This means we are missing some of the most interesting sites on the Moon: the permanently dark craters and permanently illuminated ridges on the poles, the lava tubes, the craters where metals from old asteroid impacts could be concentrated, the whole far side… Even if we want to go to the Moon, we cannot access the places that would allow us to learn the most about it and, most importantly, to stay.
Is a sustainable lunar economy possible?
In spite of this complexity, there are more than 100 missions planned to the Moon in the next decade (140 by some estimates). This shows that there is enough value (scientific, commercial, or other) in the Moon as it is for space agencies and private companies to spend millions to go there. However, this may not be sustainable.
How long will the space industry be able to finance expensive lunar missions with limited value return?
How long will we be interested in the lunar near side when we know for a fact that all the cool stuff is in the poles and far side?
How long will static landers and small rovers working almost autonomously be enough?
If we want to go to the Moon to stay, we need to improve our lunar capabilities. The most straightforward way to improve them is by going beyond just the basic pain points and creating a service that enables a new generation of lunar missions. Pains are bearable for now, but the real gains (and sustainable operations) lie further beyond.
Improving our lunar capabilities
Sustainable lunar operations will require lower costs, which we can achieve with smaller communications equipment, and cost savings on Earth with smaller ground stations. We can reduce mission risks and enable access to the most scientifically and economically interesting sites with high-accuracy navigation and extended coverage.
We can also improve the return on investment by enabling complex operations. For example, remote operations, HD streaming, improved data downloads by providing high data rates and continuous communications access.
Finally, we can simplify mission planning and execution with a dedicated communications and navigation infrastructure that is always focused on lunar missions, instead of having to serve everything in deep space.
At this point, you have probably reached the same conclusions we did back in January 2020. We need satellites, a constellation of them, and we need them close to the Moon and talking to each other so that they can relay data from the far side. We need Harmony.
How Harmony enables the lunar economy
Harmony provides all the solutions that we discussed above.
Just as a reminder: Harmony consists of 8 satellites in 2 orbital planes a high, polar lunar orbit.
The satellites are connected with intersatellite links, effectively creating a mesh network around the Moon that provides both communications and navigation services. We will use lasers to connect back to Earth, ensuring high data rates for our customers in Ka-band. This is just what the lunar economy needs to unlock the next generation of lunar activities:
Interconnected satellites provide global coverage.
With multiple satellites visible at the same time, we can provide GPS-like navigation, with high accuracy.
With a dedicated infrastructure, we provide continuous service (24/7!) and simplify mission planning (less bureaucracy, easier access).
With laser and Ka-band communications, we enable high data rates (100 Mbps per user!) as well as smaller Earth stations.
Being closer to the Moon, we reduce system costs thanks to smaller communications equipment.
Harmony as a driving force for lunar missions
With Harmony, our customers will be able to go anywhere on the Moon, land with precision next to their ideal site, talk continuously to their spacecraft and transfer huge amounts of data back from the Moon. All this at a lower cost than current missions! Any lunar mission beyond a basic lunar lander will require these next generation services to deploy equipment, prospect or mine resources, or construct infrastructure.
We also want to improve things even further. We will use standard interfaces and protocols, so that customers can easily connect to Harmony without specific, ad hoc development. Likewise, we will simplify the pricing of lunar missions, so that communications and navigation stop being a resource to be managed and become a basic reality (just like on Earth!). Finally, our backwards-compatible service will ensure that all missions can benefit from Harmony’s services, even if they were designed before Harmony was available.
The first step in our roadmap
Now that you know how we came up with the idea, it may seem like the obvious solution to kick-start the lunar economy. That is our view as well. However, Harmony is just the first step. If you read about our vision, you already know what I’m talking about.
Our goal is to enable a sustainable lunar economy, with Plus Ultra’s infrastructure as a backbone. Harmony is thus designed to enable the second wave of lunar missions, with complex surface operations, resource utilization, and the earliest human presence.
Once this new wave is there, we will move on to surface infrastructure, expanding Harmony’s capabilities. We will augment communications and navigation capabilities in areas of interest and deploy new infrastructure that further enables lunar activities and, eventually, permanent human presence.
As you see, it all fits together. The vision, the mission, the product, the service, and the future steps. Harmony is just the beginning of our lunar journey we are committed to follow.