NASA wants build a giant spacecraft orbiting the Moon – but ultimately it’s designed to help send humans to Mars.
The Lunar Gateway is a key aspect of NASA’s Artemis program, a multi-mission project to return humans to the Moon and set up camp to allow them to venture further into space than ever before. The Gateway will support these missions by essentially acting as an international space station for the Moon. NASA’s mission slogan outlines the issues:
“Return to the Moon in 2024 – this time to stay there.”
The project will be the first time humans have attempted to locate a permanent orbital space station around the Moon.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Lunar Gateway.
What is the Lunar Gateway?
The Lunar Gateway is a crewed space station designed to orbit the Moon. In this sense, it is similar to the International Space Station, which currently orbits the Earth.
Ultimately, the Gateway is designed to provide humans with a destination close to the Moon to conduct experiments and complete research projects in space.
The Gateway will also support crewed and unmanned missions to the surface of the Moon. For crewed missions, astronauts will first fly to the Gateway using NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Then they will use a human lander to transfer the astronauts to the surface of the Moon. NASA has chosen the SpaceX Starship to act as a human lander – although it has not yet been tested for this purpose.
What is the orbit of Lunar Gateway?
The Lunar Gateway will operate in a near-rectilinear halo orbit of the Moon. This rather unusual orbit means that, at its shortest point, the Gateway will be 932 miles above the surface of the Moon. At its farthest point, the Gateway will be 43,495 miles above the Moon’s surface.
However, it’s still a long way from Earth: the station will be about 240,000 miles from Earth and will orbit Earth along the Moon like our natural satellite orbits Earth.
What are the components of the Lunar Gateway?
The gateway is made up of a series of components. Although these components reflect the international collaboration that made the project possible, none of the components are ready for orbit around the Moon.
NASA’s initial goal is to build and test the components that will support a human landing on the Moon:
- the Power and propulsion element: It is a 60 kilowatt spacecraft that provides power, altitude control, communications and orbital transfer capabilities.
- the Housing and Logistics Outpost: This will provide basic life support to crew members aboard the bridge.
How big is the Lunar Gateway?
The Lunar Gateway has an internal pressurized volume of 125 cubic meters (4,414 cubic feet). It can accommodate up to four crew members for mission periods of 30 to 90 days.
By comparison, the International Space Station has an internal pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet. It usually houses around seven astronauts.
The walkway should be approximately one-sixth the size of the International Space Station, which itself is about the size of a football field. the BBC note that the main body of the walkway is somewhat larger than a London Underground carriage.
When will NASA launch the Lunar Gateway?
The critical power and propulsion elements of the lunar gateway and the habitation and logistics outposts are scheduled to be launched into space no earlier than November 2024.
The launch will use a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful operational rocket at the time of writing. It’s the same model rocket that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk used to send his red Tesla Roadster into space in February 2018.
The mission will launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
During the Artemis missions proper, NASA plans to send humans to the lunar gateway using the Space Launch System rocket under development – this rocket is still in the construction phase.
Whether NASA can stick to that timeline remains to be seen, especially after the agency noted in November 2021 that litigation pushed the first human landing by several months to 2025. Artemis I, which does not involve a crew and is a vital step for the Lunar Gateway and later Artemis missions to operate on time, have also been pushed back to May 2022 at the earliest from an earlier date of March 2022.