Scientists Share Ideas for Gateway Activities Near the Moon

The space station formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA is looking at how the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway can create value for both robotic and human exploration in deep space.

In late 2017, the agency asked the global science community to submit ideas leveraging the gateway in lunar orbit to advance scientific discoveries in a wide range of fields. NASA received more than 190 abstracts covering topics human health and performance, Earth observation, astrophysics, heliophysics, and lunar and planetary sciences, as well as infrastructure suggestions to support breakthrough science.

Although it is too early to select specific research for the gateway, the workshop marks the first time in more than a decade the agency’s human spaceflight program brought scientists from a variety of disciplines together to discuss future exploration.

“We are in the early design and development stages for the gateway, and we were curious about the level of interest in using this platform for science including the scale and scope of instrumentation scientists might want to see onboard,” said Jason Crusan, director, Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We were impressed by the breadth of the abstract responses and invited scientists and engineers to a workshop to learn more.”

Gateway assembly is targeted to begin in 2022, with the launch of the power and propulsion element. Habitation, logistics, and airlock capabilities would follow incrementally and establish the gateway’s core functionalities. Initially, NASA will send crew to the gateway once per year, so most investigations will require high levels of autonomy, and/or teleoperations.

Most concepts were based on the gateway’s location in lunar orbit, outside of Earth’s magnetosphere. This locale permits interesting observations, not possible in Earth orbit, in the fields of astrophysics, heliophysics, and Earth science. At the same time, exposure to the deep space environment introduces risk to astronauts, electronics, and hardware, due to high-energy radiation and space debris exposure. Understanding and mitigating these risks was a topic often discussed across scientific domains.

Science Opportunities Abound

“Science investigations are a critical element of our agency-wide exploration initiatives to the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We’ve studied our Earth companion for decades with robotic spacecraft and we’re eager for new innovative lunar research opportunities that also will help us learn more about our solar system and beyond.”

Scientists identified a broad range of instruments that could be used inside the gateway, as well as attached to the outside of the spacecraft, or free-flying nearby. Inside, the gateway could be outfitted with instruments to evaluate radiation effects on electronics and other susceptible materials. Monitors could be activated during crew visits, to evaluate behavioral health, neurocognitive functions, and radiation and microgravity effects. Robotic helpers were discussed to support visiting crews, and also maintain operations when the gateway is uncrewed.

Outside the gateway, scientists suggested materials research platforms as permanent, fixed panels that could host interchangeable experiments with standardized attachments. Earth observation experts saw opportunities to use Earth as proxy for exoplanet detection, and noted the capability for “full disk” imaging of Earth, as well as regular views of polar regions. With a view to the Sun, advanced solar activity characterizations are possible, and could improve our understanding of solar cycles and their effects on Earth as well as the possible risks to astronauts and spacecraft systems.

The gateway also could be used to deploy increasingly more capable CubeSats to conduct a multitude of experiments. The gateway’s infrastructure could support nearby spacecraft servicing, wide-aperture telescope assembly, and serve as a communications relay for large data returns to Earth from small probes or satellites in the lunar environment.

Other ideas included robotically collecting lunar samples to investigate aboard the gateway or preserve for return to Earth, and astronauts aboard the gateway could remotely operate rovers on the surface to characterize resources, or venture to the never-before explored lunar far side.

All-in-all, the workshop provided NASA’s human spaceflight team what they needed: a basic understanding of the science that could be conducted from the vantage point of lunar orbit, and the potential spacecraft resources that would be required to do so.

“The gateway will help us return humans to the lunar surface, and expand human presence into the solar system. We now see the endless opportunities for it to play an important role for science in cislunar space as well,” said Crusan. “The enthusiasm from this workshop was awesome, and we look forward to keeping the conversation going.”

  • Jeff2Space

    The renderings of these “gateway” concepts look quite small. I would imagine adding a Bigelow Aerospace expandable module would greatly increase the usable internal volume. Otherwise, there isn’t going to be much room for the crew, let alone science experiments.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Gee, sounds a lot like the ISS and visits once a year? More pie in the sky talk fests.
    ‘fraid I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Terry Stetler

    If there’s a crew present they can wave at BFS as it heads for a lunar landing.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Remember, like the Chinese Station, it’s just an orbital version of flags and footprints.

  • P.K. Sink

    It’s good to see so much interest in this idea. I’m fairly agnostic on where we go in space. Picking a direction and sticking with it would be a good start.

  • Michael Halpern

    Once per year how? Sls can only fly once every other year

  • windbourne

    not quite.
    The Chinese station is actually a military base, so they are going much further than flags/footprints.

  • windbourne

    THis appears to be a real waste of money.
    At least, put it in EML1 and at least service the lunar base.

  • duheagle

    That’s because it is quite small. The only thing big about it is its price tag given that it’s supposed to be built by OldSpace and launched mostly by SLS. Don’t think adding a Bigelow module to DSG/LOPG, think substituting a Bigelow module for DSG/LOPG – assuming a lunar-orbiting space station makes any sense to do at all. But that, of course, fails to guarantee that the Right People get paid.

  • duheagle

    It’s no ISS. It’ll be occupied maybe two weeks a year and have all the habitable volume and creature comforts of an ice-fishing shanty. One hopes the current pace at which NewSpace is placing new facts on the ground will mean that none of us ever has to see this pointless thing. It is pie in the sky – pork pie to be exact.

  • duheagle

    Fair point. Once per year is pretty much a best case scenario if SLS can actually be produced at a rate of one per year. Given the extremely sketchy nature of much of its supply chain, there is certainly ample reason to doubt such a cadence can be kept.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Enough with all this NASA bullshit. 🙁

  • Michael Halpern

    Which means in order for crew to reach it once a year you need another launcher, Russia likely won’t be able to get there till 2030s if ever so that leaves commercial solutions, which begs the obvious question “if we have less expensive commercial ways to reach the lunar station, what is the purpose of SLS other than jobs in the first place?”

  • Michael Halpern

    They did change the core launch over to a yet unspecified commercial vehicle in the budget request, due to the requirements, most likely Falcon Heavy, New Glenn wouldn’t be as proven at that point and you would likely need 3 stage New Glenn

  • delphinus100

    Picking a *useful* direction and sticking to it is even better.

    Not everyone thinks that this one is that useful.

  • P.K. Sink

    The international partners seem pretty excited about this. And they’re the ones who will actually be putting money where there mouths are…not just mouthing off from the peanut gallery.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Just use the bigger version of the DSG/LOP-G from Hawthorne.

    Commonly known as the BFS. Which have about the same pressurized volume as the ISS. The Big F**hing Spaceship can perform multiple tasks. Orbital station, propellant depot, Lunar access, cis-Lunar logistics & crew transportation. It is also reusable and cheap by comparison with the DSG.LOP-G.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    1) Put a neutron spectrometer on it to map He3 distribution on the Moon.
    2) Attach an inflatable mylar-aluminum radio-telescopic dish on it (30 meters diameter will do); a good assignment for Bigelow.
    Are we finally sending humans beyond LEO for the first time in 46 years?

  • duheagle

    That does seem to have become an issue. The new NASA budget apparently calls for the 1st deployed piece of DSG/LOPG to ride on a commercial launcher rather than SLS in order to get it in place by 2022 rather than waiting for SLS Block 1B to carry it NET 2023 – or later.

    Of course if commercial launchers are good enough to carry one piece of DSG/LOPG, why not all four pieces? And why must there be only four pieces? If lift can be obtained relatively cheaply and on a far faster schedule, why not make DSG/LOPG much bigger and continuously manned, like ISS, instead of being a hardly-ever-occupied line shack in space? Or why not just skip the whole idea and spend the money establishing a for-real, continuously manned lunar surface base?

    The inevitability of such questions, and the inability of NASA and the legacy contractor cartel to answer them in any rational way, will, one hopes, doom this whole ill-conceived cis-lunar space station idea until – and unless – some specific reasonable and useful purpose for it can be vouchsafed.

  • duheagle

    They’re excited about it for the same reason the U.S. legacy aerospace cartel is “excited” about it – it means pork contracts for their own version of the Aerospace Old Boys Club.

  • duheagle

    Yes. It’ll be interesting to see whether Congress goes along with this rather shocking proposal. Whether it does or not, though, I think this is an early indication that the wheels are in the process of coming off this whole DSG/LOPG idea.

  • duheagle

    Given that China’s entire taikonaut corps are active duty military that is technically correct. But it’s hard to see what the effective military role would be for Tiangong 3. It’s already been delayed at least 2 years by Long March 5 troubles, will take quite a few years to complete and will not, so far as I know, be continuously occupied for quite some time, if ever.

    If China and the U.S. ever fight a war, it seems unlikely Tiangong 3 would even rise to the military status of target unless the Chinese added weapon systems to its build-out in the interim. Failing that, it would make more sense to just send some U.S. astronauts to occupy the thing. Blowing it up would be pointless and make a heckuva mess. Better to just keep it and use it, to the extent that proves practical. Failing that, de-orbit it.

  • Michael Halpern

    Those inevitable questions are why i believe they opted not to make another mobile launcher

  • SamuelRoman13

    To use SLS to carry crew to this gateway NASA will probably have to restart the booster upgrade. Couple of nice LB was proposed. Several million was spent on the start of a twin engine with a single turbo pump. Or F-1B. No flaming chunks or 4000 deg. cloud of rocket fuel. Just shut it down. I don’t think that Congress was ever told of this problem. A cover up.

  • P.K. Sink

    I can live with that. And NewSpace will be along for the ride too.

  • mattmcc80

    I may be daft, but how does having a crew contribute to your two stated objectives?

  • duheagle

    That won’t fend off the questions, it just allowed them to ask for less money this year at the expense of stretching schedules later.

  • Michael Halpern

    It stopped one more question,

  • Zed_WEASEL

    You also needed a upgraded service module for the Orion.

    There is the option of using the New Glenn core as the strapped-on booster, if you can persuade Bezos. Who might just release the specs for the New Armstrong as a counter.

  • ReSpaceAge

    When/if they launch SLS. I’ll go to Playalinda Beach to watch it and BOO as it goes up!


  • duheagle

    Upgraded by necessity as NASA only has two Orion service modules coming from the Euros and both use surplus AJ-10 OMS engines of which we are about out. NASA recently put out an RFP for a new Orion Service module engine, but it will be years before anything comes out the far end of that process even if it just involves AJR dusting off the ancient production line for OMS engines. In the meantime, I’m unaware of any contracts being let anent the rest of any new block of Orion service modules, be they the ATV-based European design or the initial American design which was de-selected early on in favor of the bartered Euro design.

  • Paul451

    Otherwise, there isn’t going to be much room for the crew, let alone science experiments.

    Don’t worry. There’ll only be crew for a couple of months, once every couple of years. The science experiments will need to be autonomous anyway, so probably just attached to the outside of the PPM.

    I would imagine adding a Bigelow Aerospace expandable module

    ULA’s bid had a Bigelow module for the crew section.×401/local/-/media/2017/10/17/Brevard/Brevard/636438442681318765-bigelow-ula-lunar-sooner2.jpg

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Well ULA need to put the ACES upper stage into service first, Which is NET 2023.

  • publiusr

    I just want the ACES hydrogen storage whatsit to go atop SLS launched LH2 depots. If you go hydrogen–go for bulk. SLS still makes more sense than five D-IV heavies.