Space

NASA to build manned space station beyond the Moon?

NASA to build manned space sta...
A deep-space habitat derived from the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
A deep-space habitat derived from the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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The EML-2 station could be used as a staging area for exploring near-Earth asteroids (Image: NASA)
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The EML-2 station could be used as a staging area for exploring near-Earth asteroids (Image: NASA)
Interior of a possible deep-space habitat module (Image: NASA)
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Interior of a possible deep-space habitat module (Image: NASA)
A deep-space habitat derived from the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
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A deep-space habitat derived from the International Space Station (Image: NASA)
The ELM-2 station would be built and serviced by NASA's Space Launch System (Image: NASA)
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The ELM-2 station would be built and serviced by NASA's Space Launch System (Image: NASA)
The EML-2 station could be used to mount an expedition to Mars (Image: NASA)
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The EML-2 station could be used to mount an expedition to Mars (Image: NASA)
A near-term mission for the EML-2 station would be to control telepresence robots on the Moon (Image: Boeing)
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A near-term mission for the EML-2 station would be to control telepresence robots on the Moon (Image: Boeing)
The EML-2 station appears to be derived from Global Exploration Workshop proposal (Image: NASA)
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The EML-2 station appears to be derived from Global Exploration Workshop proposal (Image: NASA)
Global Exploration Workshop's Asteroid First scenario (Image: NASA)
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Global Exploration Workshop's Asteroid First scenario (Image: NASA)
Earth-Moon Lagrange points (Image: EnEdC)
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Earth-Moon Lagrange points (Image: EnEdC)
Contour plot showing the five Lagrane points (Image: Wikipedia)
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Contour plot showing the five Lagrane points (Image: Wikipedia)

After forty years of venturing no farther than low Earth orbit, NASA may have decided to establish a manned outpost at a greater distance than humanity has ever traveled before. According to documents seen by the Orlando Sentinel, NASA has chosen a proposal to build a space station beyond the Moon that will act as a “gateway spacecraft” to explore the Moon, the asteroids and eventually as a staging post to launch a manned mission to Mars.

The documents refer to a project that NASA Chief Charlie Bolden briefed the White House on earlier this month. They describe a deep space habitat that would be built at Earth-Moon Lagrange 2 (EML-2) – a point in space 38,000 miles (61,000 km) on the far side of the Moon and 277,000 miles (446,000 km) from Earth. The outpost wouldn’t orbit the Moon. Instead, at EML-2 the gravitational and centrifugal forces of the Earth and Moon balance out and an object placed there will remain suspended like one of those desktop novelty floating globes.

The EML-2 station might be built from parts of the International Space Station (ISS) and include a Russian module and Italian components. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), scheduled to fly in 2017, would be used to send the components to EML-2 in 2019, as well as the Orion spacecraft, which would ferry cargo and crew to the outpost.

The EML-2 station could be used to mount an expedition to Mars (Image: NASA)
The EML-2 station could be used to mount an expedition to Mars (Image: NASA)

Missions for the EML-2 station would include exploration of the asteroids, robotic trips to the Moon with the first sample returns by 2022, and a manned mission to Mars. The Sentinel quotes the documents as stating that placing a "spacecraft at the Earth-Moon Lagrange point beyond the moon as a test area for human access to deep space is the best near-term option to develop required flight experience and mitigate risk.”

The price of the program isn’t mentioned and this might be a stumbling block for administration support during a time of tight budgets. The White House did not respond to the Orlando Sentinel’s request for comment, and a NASA statement was noncommittal about the outpost.

The EML-2 station could be used as a staging area for exploring near-Earth asteroids (Image: NASA)
The EML-2 station could be used as a staging area for exploring near-Earth asteroids (Image: NASA)

All this sounds very similar to the 2011 Global Exploration Roadmap drawn up by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a consortium made up of the ISS partner nations. It outlines possible missions for the next 25 years that could be made possible by extending the service life of the ISS beyond 2020

This report outlined two paths, one called Asteroid Next, which describes the steps needed to explore near-Earth asteroids and Moon Next, which outlines a manned return to the Moon. The EML-2 station appears to be derived from the Asteroid Next path. Whether this is actually the case or not remains to be seen, but the general description from the Sentinel and the Roadmap’s more detailed treatment show no major variations.

Interior of a possible deep-space habitat module (Image: NASA)
Interior of a possible deep-space habitat module (Image: NASA)

If the EML-2 station is approved, it will involve more challenges than the merely monetary. EML-2 lies far outside the Earth’s Van Allen belts and would therefore be vulnerable to high levels of radiation, which would require robust shielding and detection equipment. The Orion spacecraft would also have to be built to withstand reentry speed not encountered since the return of Apollo 17 in 1972.

Because of the distance and travel times to and from Earth measuring in days, systems would need to be heavily automated and built to an unprecedented degree of reliability. Furthermore, new techniques for the long-term storage and management of cryogenic fluids would need to be developed as well as acquiring operational knowledge that is beyond anything needed in manned space exploration to date.

Until officially verified, the EML-2 station still remains only one possible future for the American space program, but if it does come about, the final frontier will have expanded enormously.

Sources: Orlando Sentinel,

NASA

22 comments
GeoMoon5
Exciting to see a proposal for a gateway outpost! Looks like its technological necessities will father many novel inventions. Does it have to be another module design, though? Aren't we ready yet to build a wheel space station? I wonder if the proven inflatable space station module technology made by Bigelow Aerospace could be a practical way of achieving a wheel space station design.
yrag
At this point, I'd like to see NASA, or any space organization send up something that would incorporate "centrifugal effects" or "centripetal acceleration" to provide astronauts artificial gravity—along with more effective radiation shielding, these are necessary if we are going to have a real, sustained and growing presence in space.
Astro Rosaire
I'm pretty disappointed by the utter lack of imagination for the ISS components. I also would like to see a station with an artificial gravity design. Any long term stay in space needs to have this important counter measure for the ill effects of microgravity.
techmanmacho
Not to mention look at the size of it! Would you really want to be cooped up in something the size of a bus with a few other people together for time periods probably lasting up to a year?!? (if not longer)
Griffin
Wouldn't it be easier to go from Luna to Deimos or Phobos first? (Earth's moon to one of Mars' moons) There was supposed to be a colony on the Moon by now and instead we haven't even been back- the Shuttle made Telecom rich and now too many people seem to want to just play with their phones or video games... while many others starve or slave. I know this is not what was being prognosticated so optimistically by scientists a hundred years ago. Claims without specific,consistent unchanging plans are just hype or propaganda. Old science magazines made fantastic claims- theirs were more imaginative... ours have prettier pictures and more details. Will these turn out any different?
Jon A.
This assumes that SLS ever flies. That's not a completely safe assumption, and getting worse all the time. If this is truly intended as a station, why does it have a cryogenic propulsion stage? Does that move the station into position, then serve as a fuel depot?
PeetEngineer
This is still too modest. A 'deep space' outpost such as this is an admirable concept, but a Lunar base is also eminently feasible, with exciting prospects for commodity mining and research.
Slowburn
This station is a bad idea. All it would provide is a tiny fuel savings for deep space operations at the much higher costs of maintain the station in L1.
Pikeman
The way station should be in LEO where it can catch and salvage expended liquid fueled boosters that still have a small amount of propellant on board. The crew could then build and fuel boosters for deep space operations, and expand the station itself by cannibalizing the expended rockets. Giving the station a long linear accelerator would give the ability to to provide a little propellant free boost to vehicles but you would have to balance between boosting and deorbiting payloads to maintain your orbit. A spin gravity section would greatly improve the health of the crew as well.
jhvance
The future of the ISS should figure into this concept, and not with presumption of intentional de-orbit so that some new and glitzy program can take over its previous funding stream. From now on, the space program needs to bootstrap and build upon itself by leveraging the existing infrastructure in which huge investments have already been made, rather than simply discarding them in a continued 'slash-and-burn' path of development. One possibility for establishing a gateway in High Earth Orbit (HEO) or at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points that should be considered would involve outfitting the existing ISS with more radiation shielding, then integrating an array of ion-drive motors (used in the Dawn probe now flying from Vesta to Ceres) and fuel tanks (like the Shuttle Orbiter's external tank) into the existing structure. Useful not only for station-keeping in its present LEO position, once the distributed array and initial tanks are fully integrated and complete, the entire orbiting structure could slowly and carefully be lifted into geosynchronous orbit or even to one of the Lagrange points. Resupply of reaction fuel could be accomplished through unmanned transfers using well-proven commercial launch vehicles from the US, Russia, Europe and/or China and on-orbit logistical support by the onboard crew to attach new tanks.