ST. LOUIS — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is working with NASA to develop a positioning and navigation system to guide visitors around the surface of the moon “as accurately and as safely as GPS does on Earth,” NGA’s director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth said May 22.

In a keynote speech at the GEOINT 2023 symposium, Whitworth said NGA’s new project to develop a lunar reference system is part of the agency’s broader goal to support civil and military space operations. 

He noted that NGA’s predecessor, the Defense Mapping Agency, mapped the moon ahead of the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s. “Today, we’re working with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command to develop a lunar geodetic system,” said Whitworth.

NGA also plans to support planetary exploration beyond the moon, he said. “The lunar geodetic system is likely to be the first of many celestial body reference systems NGA will be tasked with in the years ahead.”

‘A big deal”

Whitworth said the agency views the lunar geodetic system as a scientific and technical challenge that will take years to reach fruition. 

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “We realized that we needed something that was the lunar equivalent of WGS 84.”

The World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS 84) is a three-dimensional coordinate reference frame for establishing latitude, longitude and heights for navigation and positioning. It’s a global geodetic reference system for the Earth used for mapping, charting, geopositioning and navigation. 

“And we’re not going to rush to failure on this one,” he said. “We’re actually taking the right amount of time both with ourselves and academia and other communities to ensure that we do it right.”

Companies in the private sector today are working on lunar communications and navigation technologies based on NASA’s LunaNet architecture. 

But a lunar reference system comparable to WGS 84 is “something that does not exist today,” said James Griffith, NGA’s director of source operations and management.

“We are still doing the science to try to understand it,” Griffith said May 22 at a news conference at GEOINT. “We are working with many of our colleagues across the scientific community, and working very closely with NASA to understand how do you build this reference frame and then how do you make it a repeatable process?”

The gravitational environment on the moon, where there is no atmosphere, creates a different set of challenges for navigation, he noted. “We know the types of data we need to collect, but we don’t necessarily know how to collect it in that type of environment.”

“Our tools aren’t built for that,” said Griffith. “And so we have a lot of exploratory work to do.”

Just like WGS 84 required collaboration among many agencies, “I believe the same is going to happen here,” he said. “This is truly breaking ground in science.”

NGA director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth. Credit: USGIF

New focus on space

Whitworth also identified space domain awareness — or intelligence about objects in space — as an area where NGA wants to play a larger role. 

“And make no mistake, distinguishing friendly from unfriendly behavior in space has become particularly important to us,” he said. 

To build expertise in space domain awareness, NGA wants to have more Space Command and Space Force representatives working at the agency 

“I’ve talked to the chief of space operations of the Space Force, as well as the Space Command commander and the director of the NRO about these proposed changes to make sure that it was consistent with their vision as well,” said Whitworth. 

“And it was, and so when you think about what we do, we distinguish enemy, adversarial behavior from friendly behavior,” he said. “That’s one of our chief responsibilities and that has to apply in space and there’s not necessarily a large workforce dedicated to that outside of NGA.” 

Whitworth said NGA would help to augment existing Space Force and Space Command efforts to monitor space objects and identify potential threats using intelligence collected by imaging satellites.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...