Decades after putting the first man on the moon, and also the last, NASA is considering sending humans to Earth’s only natural satellite again. Toward that end, and also to further capabilities of human space exploration farther from Earth (keeping in mind plans to send astronauts to Mars), the space agency is planning an outpost in orbit around the moon.
Called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, it will be like a space station in an orbit around the moon, and is planned to be ready for human habitation by 2023. To be assembled in space over time (much like the International Space Station, or ISS), the first module will be a power and propulsion system, which is targeted for a 2022 launch.
It would use “high-power solar electric propulsion” to maintain the position of the platform in a lunar orbit, and would also be capable of shifting the orbit closer to or farther from the moon, depending on science and exploration objectives. Another capability of this module would be to operate as a hi-tech communications platform to relay between Earth, space, the moon and other spacecraft, as well as to transfer large amounts of data using lasers.
Currently, five companies are completing four-month studies, as part of NASA’s public-private partnership, to develop this module in an affordable way. The space agency is also considering partnerships for other elements of the gateway, such as logistics, airlocks and habitation modules. The launch of the elements into space for assembly could be done using NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, or commercial rockets.