0919 GMT March 19, 2019
According to The Guardian, spaceflight will mark an important milestone this year — when NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of US astronauts reaching the Moon.
In December 1968 Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — on Apollo 8 — swept over the lunar surface and captured bright blue images of Earth rising above the grey plains of the Moon. It was one of the most dramatic space missions ever flown. Manned landings followed, but after a few years, the US lost interest in lunar space flights.
But now NASA has revealed plans to return to the Moon and has asked European scientists and industry leaders to join the agency in a bold plan aimed at rebooting humanity’s conquest of the solar system — in the form of an international manned station that will orbit the Moon within the next decade.
The proposed station, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway — known as Gateway — will allow astronauts to develop techniques that will open up the lunar surface to exploration and exploitation. At the same time, the station will help humans hone survival skills in deep space in preparation for future manned missions to Mars, said NASA.
Taking part in the station’s construction would cost Europe more than £1 billion and a decision on whether to become involved will be taken at a meeting of European science ministers next year. If ministers give the go-ahead, the European Space Agency (Esa) — of which Britain is a key member — would then join other international partners that NASA is recruiting to its Gateway project. These include the space agencies of Russia, Canada and Japan.
David Parker, director of human spaceflight and robotic exploration for Esa and a keen supporter of the project, said, “Essentially, Gateway will be a robotic outpost that will be visited by groups of astronauts — initially for weeks and then for months at a time.
“They will learn how to survive in deep space and deal with problems such as radiation and meteorites. At the same time they will also direct robot craft that will explore the Moon’s surface.”
A go-ahead for Gateway would also bring to an end the hiatus in manned space exploration that has lasted for almost a decade.
Since the grounding of the space shuttle, human spaceflights have been restricted to launches of Russia’s Soyuz space capsule, which is used to ferry crew and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), and the few missions taken by taikonauts on China’s fledgling spacecraft.
Gateway should change that — and it will do so by taking advantage of a major advance in US space engineering which will occur when NASA begins flights with its new deep-space capsule, Orion, and its launcher, the Space Launch System in a few years.
These will form the core components of Gateway along with modules similar to those now used as stores and crew quarters on the ISS, though NASA stresses Gateway will be considerably smaller than their current Earth-orbiting space station.
And key to operation of their lunar station will be the extraction, from lunar soil, of minerals, chemicals, and —most important — water.
Mahesh Anand, reader in planetary science and exploration at the Open University, said, “Recent evidence suggests comets and asteroids have bombarded the Moon for billions of years, depositing water — in the form of ice — on to its polar regions.”
Scientists like Anand believe it should be possible to use that water to turn the Moon into a refueling station for long-term missions to Mars and beyond.
Ice would be harvested, melted and electrolyzed using power generated by solar panels — into its hydrogen and oxygen components. “You could then use that hydrogen and oxygen as liquid propellants,” added Anand.
“That is what powered the space shuttle’s main engines after all. Then you could use the Moon as a refueling post to power spaceships to Mars.”
It remains a far-off goal. For a start, astronomers do not have precise details of the most promising places to find water on the Moon. Finding those sources will not be easy, but not impossible — thanks to Gateway.
It will orbit the Moon from a height of a few hundred miles and from there astronauts will control robot rovers remotely and send them trundling over the lunar surface to pinpoint areas rich in water ice. Samples could even be sent back to the space station by unmanned spacecraft.