NASA is going back to the Moon, and this time, it intends to stay a while. That’s the news from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who announced the first company chosen to deliver a vital component of the space agency’s Lunar Gateway space station. Maxar Technologies will build the power and propulsion system for the Lunar Gateway, the first step in NASA’s ambitious new Artemis project that will put humans on the Moon’s surface in just five years.
“This time when we go to the Moon, we’re actually going to stay,” Bridenstine said. “The goal here is speed. 2024 is right around the corner.”
The Lunar Gateway power and propulsion unit is planned to be ready by 2022 and will rely on solar power. According to NASA, solar electric propulsion uses solar cells and an ion drive to move the attached habitat systems to various points in lunar orbit. An SEP uses 5-15x less propellant than an equivalent chemical rocket system would require to move the habitat into various lunar orbits at the same speed. The SEP design is also capable of being extended for other missions, including Mars exploration. The solar array should be capable of scaling above 90kW with additional wings, while Hall thrusters at 50kW have been validated in lab testing. NASA, in other words, thinks its basic design can scale to meet future mission needs rather than being a one-off effort.
Maxar will work with Blue Origin and Draper to design the five-ton power and propulsion element, which means it may launch into space aboard Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Maxar wasn’t willing to commit to that specifically just yet, however, saying only that it would choose a commercial rocket provider within 12-18 months. While the power and propulsion unit will launch in 2022, it’s just the first component of the Lunar Gateway station NASA intends to construct. The goal is to have a small habitability module also attached to the station structure by 2024 when the first astronaut visit is scheduled to occur.
The Lunar Gateway module is an Obama-era project that’s been tweaked by the Trump Administration’s changes to NASA’s priorities. Originally conceived of as a step in exploring Mars, we’ll instead use one for lunar surface access first. One potential upside of doing so is that we’ll be able to test the design and its scaling before potentially deploying it as part of a later manned Mars exploration effort.
It isn’t clear yet how much the Gateway will grow from its original configuration. NASA has noted that it may expand the station with additional modules for scientific missions or to support a larger crew. The power provided by the Maxar Technologies module should be more than sufficient to sustain additional mission goals.
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