Moon, here we come again

Since 2012, Nasa was toying with the idea of a small space outpost on the Moon called the Deep Space Habitat. It was intended to make it a hub where astronauts could assemble modules, conduct science experiments and explore the Moonscape with rovers. By 2015, the project was reshuffled to incorporate an orbiting station near the moon, rather than a surface habitat.

The programme received an impetus early last year with the Trump administration giving the go-ahead to send people to our cosmic companion. The directive, manifesting as the Moon to Mars mission, saw Nasa envisioning to build a cislunar (in close orbit) station at the Moon. Nasa projects the facility would function as an intermediary platform to tap the resources of the Moon, for advanced human space exploration goals: in due course, when people go to Mars travelling for months through harsh space conditions, a stopover hub is welcome for many reasons.

With funds flowing in, Nasa is plunging into the project, claiming to return astronauts to the Moon by the end of the 2020s.

The floor plan

The coming decade will witness the lunar habitat now called the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G or Gateway) being built module-by module in space. Much like the International Space Station (ISS), LOP-G will grow gradually in size; unlike the ISS, the Gateway will run autonomously and will not have permanent human residents — for economic reasons. The hub will host four-member crew for one to three months at a time.

With the US leading the project, it is expected that the 14-nation partnership of ISS will continue with LOP-G. Reportedly, Nasa and its partners are keen on global participation in this endeavour, and, are standardising an inter-operability draft for any nation to utilise the facility, or send their scientists for experiments, by following specific technical guidelines.

The in-space assembly will begin in 2022, with the first crew visiting the Gateway in 2026. By 2028, humans would be staying on the Moon — this time for extended periods. From then on, LOP-G will be fully functional and ready to play the part of a space stopover. The massive human-made space structure will orbit the Moon in a highly elliptical Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit to keep the outpost in constant communication with earth. The Gateway will fly within 70,000 km to 1,500km from the Moon, circling it every six days.

Brick by brick

As the project kicks off this year, Nasa is finalising design proposals for the technology and manufacturing of the modules by collaborating with various commercial and government organisations. The spaceport will be pieced together in five to six missions.

The first unit to go on the long haul will be the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) —  the energy bank and driver of the station. For this, it will utilise solar power rather than chemical sources. Huge solar arrays will deploy in space to generate electricity to fire the ion thrusters for orbital manoeuvres, and to meet the power requirements on board.

The next to assemble is the Habitation and Communications Module — the accommodation for people. Several proposed designs, each providing a limited 2000 square feet crew quarters, are undergoing ground tests.

The subsequent mission will take the Gateway Logistics Module, carrying with it Canada’s Robotic Arm— Canadarm-3, which will retain its unique role in the service and maintenance of the spaceport.

Other units that will add are the Science Experiment and a Multipurpose Port to conduct studies both from the orbital observatory and on the surface of the moon. Besides, a bay will hold landers and rovers for astronauts to fly down to the surface routinely.

Also, it is envisioned that, down the years, these modules will help in extracting and utilising moon resources for further expeditions. The cargo port will receive supplies; a permanent port for the Orion spacecraft to transport astronauts will be a feature on the LOP-G.

The fifth mission to the hub will carry the Gateway Airlock Module. This crucial component will facilitate extravehicular activity (spacewalks) and provide the foothold for Deep Space Transport for future missions.

By 2028, the first crew will fly to the gateway and from there hop on to the Moon to reside for about a week, communicating with the space station.

As the events unfold, the platform will add a new dimension to humanity’s presence in space. With much excitement in the air, this decade will witness humans revisiting the Moon after a long gap of fifty years. It is not far off now when we look at the Moon on the horizon and say: “Be there soon!”

(The writer is a science communicator and evaluator- AWSAR, DST)

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Moon, here we come again

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