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NASA's new "Gateway space station" will soon orbit the moon

Space exploration is on the brink of a new era, and NASA’s Gateway space station is at the forefront of this exciting frontier. As the first permanent piece of lunar infrastructure, Gateway promises to revolutionize our understanding of the lunar environment and pave the way for future crewed missions to Mars.

According to NASA, Gateway is a next-generation space station that will orbit the Moon, enabling a wide range of research activities and serving as a vital staging point for deep space exploration.

Dr. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasizes the importance of Gateway.

“Gateway is a crucial component of NASA’s Artemis missions, which aim to return humans to the lunar surface in preparation for the first crewed missions to Mars,” she explained.

Hub for scientific discovery

Gateway will feature habitation and research facilities, crew and payload airlocks, and docking ports for visiting spacecraft, including Orion, lunar landers, and logistics resupply craft.

This unique infrastructure will enable longer stays on and around the Moon, significantly expanding research and exploration opportunities beyond what was envisioned or achievable during the Apollo missions.

Dr. Lueders explains that Gateway will accomplish several key objectives crucial to NASA’s Artemis campaign:

  • Enable a sustained presence around the Moon
  • Support human crewed missions to deep space and the lunar surface
  • Facilitate scientific research and discovery in a deep space environment
  • Enable, demonstrate, and validate technologies critical for lunar missions, with applications for Mars and other deep space destinations
  • Cultivate industry and international partnerships to lead an unprecedented global coalition to the Moon

Gateway space station’s location

NASA will locate Gateway in a polar orbit around the Moon. This highly elliptical Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) will bring Gateway within about 1,000 miles (1,500 km) of the Moon at its closest approach and about 43,500 miles (70,000 km) at its farthest.

Gateway’s unique polar orbit will provide Artemis astronauts and their spacecraft access to the entire lunar surface, including the critical lunar South Pole region, which the Artemis missions focus on.

It will also ensure uninterrupted communications between the Moon and Earth, provide unique scientific opportunities within the deep space environment, and its high stability will enhance operational efficiency and reduce costs.

Gateway will complete one full orbit around the Moon approximately every 6.5 days.

One module at a time

Gateway will be an incrementally built and deployed spacecraft, similar to the International Space Station (ISS).

However, assembling Gateway in lunar orbit will involve just four rocket launches and will take approximately six years, in contrast to the ISS’s 42 assembly flights over about 13 years.

This streamlined assembly process for Gateway is made possible by its smaller size and advancements in technology.

The first two modules of Gateway — the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) — are already taking shape on the ground, with hardware fabrication actively underway in facilities worldwide.

These components will be integrated and launched together on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than 2025.

Following launch, they will spend about a year traveling to lunar orbit, during which time Gateway will begin its scientific investigations, enabled by autonomous systems and remote operations.

New era of human spaceflight

The addition of the Lunar International Habitation module (Lunar I-Hab) to Gateway, expected no earlier than 2028 as part of the Artemis IV mission, will mark a significant milestone in human spaceflight.

During this mission, a crewed Orion spacecraft will transport the Lunar I-Hab to Gateway and dock it with HALO, marking the first time astronauts enter the space station.

“Astronauts aboard Gateway will conduct scientific research, prepare for lunar surface missions, and perform maintenance tasks to ensure the smooth operation of the station,” says Dr. Lueders.

“Gateway will have a minimum 15-year lifespan, with the potential for extension well beyond that initial timeframe.”

Gateway space station compared to the ISS

While Gateway shares some similarities with the ISS, there are notable differences between the two space stations. Gateway will be approximately 1/5 the size of the ISS by volume and 1/6 by mass.

When fully assembled, Gateway will weigh around 63 metric tons (63,000 kilograms) and measure 141 feet tall (43 meters), 62 feet wide (19 meters), and 67 feet long (20 meters), with a habitable volume of about 125 cubic meters.

Unlike the ISS, which orbits at a distance of approximately 250 miles from Earth in low-Earth orbit, Gateway will be located much farther away, in lunar orbit, about 1000 times farther from Earth than the ISS. This means that Gateway will not be visible from Earth like the ISS.

Another key difference between the two stations is their focus. While the ISS has been a cornerstone of space research in low-Earth orbit for over two decades, Gateway expands this legacy into the deep space environment.

Gateway will operate in orbit around the Moon, where radiation is a greater concern due to the lack of Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Additionally, while the ISS is permanently inhabited, Gateway will not be.

Instead, Gateway will focus on pushing the boundaries of solar electric propulsion, robotics, and autonomous operations, enabling it to conduct science investigations and support missions even when crew are not present.

Road to Mars and Gateway space station

NASA has selected SpaceX as the initial U.S. commercial provider for Gateway’s logistics services. SpaceX will deliver critical pressurized and unpressurized cargo, science experiments, and supplies to Gateway, with one logistics services delivery anticipated for each crewed Artemis mission to Gateway.

This partnership, along with the international collaborations and industry involvement in the development and operation of Gateway, underscores the global effort to advance space exploration and scientific discovery.

Beyond its role in lunar exploration, Gateway is part of a broader strategy for sustained and permanent lunar exploration, playing a vital role in NASA’s preparations for future missions to Mars.

The knowledge and experience gained from operating Gateway will prove invaluable for these endeavors, as NASA continues to push the boundaries of human spaceflight and exploration.

As Dr. Lueders concludes, “Gateway represents a new era in space exploration, one that will not only deepen our understanding of the Moon and its potential but also serve as a stepping stone to even greater adventures beyond, to Mars and the depths of our solar system.”

Artemis program and the Gateway space station

As mentioned previously, NASA launched the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon and establish a sustainable presence on the lunar surface by 2028.

The program takes its name from Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, symbolizing the agency’s goal to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon.

The Artemis program serves as a crucial stepping stone for future crewed missions to Mars. NASA will use the knowledge and experience gained from exploring the Moon to prepare for the challenges of sending humans to the Red Planet.

Learning to live and work in deep space

Through the Artemis program, NASA will develop and test new technologies, such as advanced spacesuits, lunar rovers, and habitats, which will be essential for deep space exploration and long-duration missions to Mars.

By establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon, NASA will learn how to live and work in deep space for extended periods. This experience will be invaluable when planning and executing crewed missions to Mars, which will require astronauts to spend months or even years in space.

International cooperation

The Artemis program seeks to build and strengthen international partnerships in space exploration. NASA will collaborate with space agencies from around the world, as well as commercial partners, to achieve its ambitious goals and foster a shared vision for lunar exploration.

In October 2020, NASA and seven partner countries signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles that will guide cooperation among nations participating in the Artemis program. The Accords cover topics such as peaceful exploration, transparency, interoperability, and the protection of heritage sites on the Moon.

NASA’s Gateway to the future

In summary, as NASA forges ahead with the development and assembly of the Gateway space station, the agency is laying the foundation for a sustainable presence on and around the Moon while setting the stage for future crewed missions to Mars and beyond.

Through its innovative design, cutting-edge technologies, and collaborative partnerships, Gateway space station will serve as a testament to human ingenuity and the unwavering spirit of exploration.

As we stand on the brink of this new era in space exploration, Gateway will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers, and adventurers to push the boundaries of what is possible and continue our journey into the depths of the cosmos.


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