The moon in the black sky

Nasa and Roscosmos consider possibility of Moon-orbiting space station

Image credit: Dreamstime

In a joint statement, the two space agencies have declared their intention to support research that could contribute to the creation of a new space station in orbit around the Moon.

The agreement, which was signed during the 68th International Astronautical Congress, proposes to collaborate on research for space exploration which “reflects the common vision for human exploration”.

At the conference, Nasa Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that: “as we move out from ISS, we want to take advantage of that with all our partners, and whatever we do, we do it in a global way.”

The ISS has required collaboration not just between Nasa and Roscosmos but also ESA (European Space Agency), CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and the facility itself is jointly owned. It is commonly cited as the most expensive object ever built, at approximately $150 billion (£110 billion).

After nearly two decades in orbit, however, its lifetime is coming to an end and it is likely to retire by the mid-2020s at the latest.

For many years, Nasa has been making plans to extend the reaches of manned space exploration. The Space Launch System rocket (a replacement for the retired Space Shuttle) is the most powerful rocket in existence and could eventually be used for manned missions to Mars. The rocket will be used to launch Nasa’s Orion spacecraft, which will carry a small crew back and forth from the ISS, and potentially to asteroids or Mars.

Taking a step closer to the ambitious task of sending a manned mission to Mars, the Nasa-Roscosmos agreement is focused on the collaborative development of the deep-space gateway concept.

The deep-space gateway would be a manned facility in orbit around the Moon, which could subsequently be used to test for manned missions to Mars. The idea was announced in March 2017. This manned facility would serve as a ‘spaceport’ capable of switching between orbits around the Moon.

Longer missions to the gateway would, according to Nasa, demonstrate whether or not Nasa and human astronauts have the capability to perform lengthy space missions beyond the Moon, with independence from Earth. These missions could be carried out in the late 2020s, comfortably preceding potential manned missions to Mars in the 2030s.

“The gateway could move to support robotic or partner missions to the surface of the moon, or to a high lunar orbit to support missions departing from the gateway to other destinations in the solar system,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at Nasa, speaking at the time of the announcement.

Nasa suggested that it could be equipped with a power bus, docking capability, an airlock, habitat for the crew and logistics modules for research. As the gateway would be developed in collaboration with commercial and international partners, there may be a significant role for Roscosmos and other foreign space agencies in assisting with the development of some of these components, if the project goes ahead.

Currently, Nasa is exploring the possibility of building the gateway. Research projects such as the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program could inform the design of habitat modules and other components to support the facility. Roscosmos will join Nasa in the research stage of the project.

“Studies of the gateway concept will provide technical information to inform future decisions about potential collaborations,” a Nasa statement said. “These domestic and international studies are being used to shape the capabilities and partnering options for implementing the deep space gateway.”

Nasa and Roscosmos are still some way, however, from a final agreement on whether to develop the moon base at all, let alone how to go about it. Nasa has not yet officially announced the Gateway as a future project, and it has no set timescale of budget.

“While the deep-space gateway is still in concept formulation, Nasa is pleased to see growing international interest in moving into cislunar space as the next step for advancing human space exploration,” Lightfoot said at the conference. He clarified that, “There’s no commitment of resources of commitment to a program: it’s all conceptual at this point.”

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