iOS app Android app More

Space Outpost: NASA Considers Plan For Deep Space Waypoint Near Moon (VIDEO)

First Posted: 02/12/2012 9:03 pm Updated: 02/12/2012 9:13 pm

By: Leonard David
Published: 02/11/2012 09:32 PM EST on SPACE.com

NASA is pressing forward on assessing the value of a "human-tended waypoint" near the far side of the moon -- one that would embrace international partnerships as well as commercial and academic participation, SPACE.com has learned.

According to a Feb. 3 memo from William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, a team is being formed to develop a cohesive plan for exploring a spot in space known as the Earth-moon libration point 2 (EML-2).

Libration points, also known as Lagrangian points, are places in space where the combined gravitational pull of two large masses roughly balance each other out, allowing spacecraft to essentially "park" there.

A pre-memo NASA appraisal of EML-2, which is near the lunar far side, has spotlighted this destination as the "leading option" for a near-term exploration capability. [Gallery: Visions of Deep-Space Station Missions]

EML-2 could serve as a gateway for capability-driven exploration of multiple destinations, such as near-lunar space, asteroids, the moon, the moons of Mars and, ultimately, Mars itself, according to NASA officials.

A capabilities-driven NASA architecture is one that should use the agency's planned heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle "as the foundational elements."

Cadence of compelling missions

The memo spells out six strategic principles to help enable exploration beyond low-Earth orbit:

  • Incorporating significant international participation that leverages current International Space Station partnerships.
  • U.S. commercial business opportunities to further enhance the space station logistics market with a goal of reducing costs and allowing for private sector innovation.
  • Multiuse or reusable in-space infrastructure that allows a capability to be developed and reused over time for a variety of exploration destinations.
  • The application of technologies for near-term applications while focusing research and development of new technologies to reduce costs, improve safety, and increase mission capture over the longer term.
  • Demonstrated affordability across the project life cycle.
  • Near-term mission opportunities with a well-defined cadence of compelling missions providing for an incremental buildup of capabilities to perform more complex missions over time.

Quiet zone

According to strategic space planners, an EML-2 waypoint could enable significant telerobotic science on the far side of the moon and could serve as a platform for solar and Earth scientific observation, radio astronomy and other science in the quiet zone behind the moon.

Furthermore, the waypoint could enable assembly and servicing of satellites and large telescopes, among a host of other uses.

If NASA succeeds in establishing an astronaut-tended EML-2 waypoint, it would represent the farthest humans have traveled from Earth to date, the memo points out.

Extended stays at EML-2 would provide advancements in life sciences and radiation-shielding for long-duration missions outside of the Van Allen radiation belts that protect Earth, scientists say.

Next step

Gerstenmaier noted that moving forward on international, commercial and academic partnerships will "require significant detailed development and integration."

Moreover, Gerstenmaier added, EML-2 "is a complex region of cis-lunar space that has certain advantages as an initial staging point for exploration, but may also have some disadvantages that must be well understood."

A NASA study team is assigned the task of developing near-term missions to EML-2 "as we continue to refine our understanding and implications of using this waypoint as part of the broader exploration capability development," the memo explains.

The study is targeted for completion by March 30, 2012.

A working group of International Space Station members --a meeting bringing together space agencies from around the world -- is being held in Paris this week with NASA’s EML-2 strategy likely to be discussed with international partners.

Proving ground

Bullish on the promise of telerobotics exploration of the moon from EML-2 is Jack Burns, director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR) Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. LUNAR is funded by the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Burns and his team have been collaborating with Lockheed Martin (builder of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) for more than a year to plan an early Orion mission that would go into a halo orbit of EML-2 above the lunar far side. 

"This is extremely exciting from both the exploration and science sides," Burns told SPACE.com. "This mission concept seems to be really taking off now because it is unique and offers the prospects of doing something significant outside of low-Earth orbit within this decade."

In collaboration with Lockheed-Martin, the LUNAR Center is investigating human missions to EML-2 that could be a proving ground for future missions to deep space while also overseeing scientifically important investigations.

Roadways on the moon?

In a LUNAR Center white paper provided to SPACE.com, researchers note that an EML-2 mission would have astronauts traveling 15 percent farther from Earth than did the Apollo astronauts, and spending almost three times longer in deep space. [Lunar Legacy: Apollo Moon Mission Photos]

Such missions would validate the Orion spacecraft's life-support systems for shorter durations, could demonstrate the high-speed re-entry capability needed for return to Earth from deep space, and could help scientists gauge astronauts’ radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar flares. Doing so would help verify that Orion provides sufficient radiation protection, as it is designed to do, researchers said.

On such missions, the white paper explains, Orion astronauts could teleoperate gear on the lunar far side. For instance, the moon-based robotic hardware could obtain samples from the geologically appealing far side -- perhaps from the South Pole-Aitken basin, which is one of the largest, deepest and oldest craters in the solar system.

Also on a proposed lunar robotic agenda is deployment of a low-frequency array of radio antennas to observe the first stars in the early universe.

Among a number of research jobs, the LUNAR team has been investigating how modest equipment could be used to fuse lunar regolith into a concrete-like material, which could then be used for construction of large structures, without the expense of having to carry most of the material to the lunar surface.

The ability to fabricate hardened structures from lunar regolith could also foster on-the-spot creation of solar arrays, habitats, and radiation shielding and maybe, even roadways on the surface of the moon.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.



Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Also on HuffPost:

LOOK: NASA Lunar Base Concepts
All images and captions courtesy of NASA.
Loading Slideshow...
  • (June 1977)--- A painting of a lunar supply base which was displayed during the NASA-sponsored Ninth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 1978 in Houston.

  • (14 March 1983) --- This artist's concept of lunar mining operations illustrates the production of liquid oxygen. Ilmenite, a fairly common oxygen rich component of lunar soil, is the material actually being mined here.

  • (October 1984)--- An artists's rendering gives a possible preview of 21st century lunar base activity. A lunar surface crane removes a newly arrived habitation module from an expendable lunar lander.

  • (June 1986) --- This artist's concept of a lunar base and extra-base activity was revealed during a 1986 Summer Study on possible future activities for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. A roving vehicle similar to the one used on three Apollo missions is depicted in the foreground. The artwork was done by Dennis Davidson.

  • (7 April 1988)--- This painting was used as a visual at an April 1988 Houston-hosted conference titled "Lunar Bases and Space Strategies of the 21st Century." A deep drill team obtains cores for petrological studies of the floor units of the young, 30-kilometers, 4200-meter crater, Aristarchus.

  • (April 1988)--- This painting was used as a visual at an April 1988 Houston-hosted conference titled "Lunar Bases and Space Strategies of the 21st Century." Here, a surface exploration crew begins its investigation of a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base.

  • An evolutionary approach to settling the inner solar system would begin with an outpost on the Moon. Here, just three days away from Earth, we could become experienced in living and working on another planetary body. The explorer in the foreground, wearing a constant-volume, hard space suit with rotating joints, is a representative of a commerical enterprise that intends to develop and exploit extraterrestrial resources.

  • (April 1988)--- This painting was done by Eagle Engineering artists who are working with Eagle and NASA engineers on concepts born from a NASA sponsored project called the Lunar Base Systems Study.

  • (April 1988) --- This painting was used as a visual at an April 1988 Houston-hosted conference titled "Lunar Bases and Space Strategies of the 21st Century." Here, two jubilant scientists of an ice prospecting, lunar lander mission examine an ice-encrusted drill stem as they stand in the frigid (60 degrees K), permanently shadowed part of a south polar region crater.

  • (April 1988) --- This painting was used as a visual at an April 1988 Houston-hosted conference titled "Lunar Bases and Space Strategies of the 21st Century." Here, a Lunar Base traverese mission crew stands on the northern tip of Vallis Schroteri during an exploration mission to the Aristarchus plateau region.

  • (March 1989) --- An inflatable habitat similar to this could represent part of an outpost, forerunner to a permanent inhabited lunar base.

  • (July 1989)--- With a number of studies ongoing for possible lunar expeditions, many concepts for living and working on Earth's natural satellite have been examined.

  • (July 1989) --- With a number of studies ongoing for possible lunar explorations, many concepts for living and working on Earth's natural satellite have been examined.

  • (22 February 1990) --- A model of a baseline lunar surface roving vehicle and accompanying astronauts on Extravehicular Activity (EVA). Part of the scene utilizes actual imagery. This view, as part of a study by the Johnson Space Center's Lunar and Mars Exploration Office does not depict existing or currently budgeted hardware.

  • (1991) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) An "Artemis" - class lander, capable of delivering up to 200 kilograms to the lunar surface, has delivered a teleoperated rover to the lunar surface. The rover has surveyed the landing site for an eventual human landing. The piloted vehicle is shown in the background during the final stage of its descent.

  • (1992) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) Lunar pioneers will encounter hazards and crises requiring new emergency procedures. Here, an antenna installer fell over a 90-foot escarpment and fractured his right femur. Responding to this situation on a "medivac" hopper, two other lunar base crew members employ a portable CAT-scan device, a holographic display, and helmet-mounted heads-up displays to determine the severity of the injury.

  • (1993) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) The lunar crew refills the propellant tanks on their spacecraft with oxygen produced on the Moon. This allows them to return directly to Earth, reentering the atmosphere in the conical crew module, and touching down at a prepared landing site.

  • (1995) --- Lunar resources, such as lunar oxygen from regolith or possibly from south pole ice deposits, would increase our motivation to return to the Moon and could significantly enhance the economics of future lunar colonization.

  • (1995) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) Just a few kilometers from the Apollo 17 Taurus Littrow landing site, a lunar mining facility harvests oxygen from the resource-rich volcanic soil of the eastern Mare Serenitatis.

  • (1993) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) A teleoperated lunar oxygen plant begins production. Remotely driven surface vehicles mine and transport lunar soil to the plant, where the oxygen is extracted, liquefied, and pumped into waiting storage tanks. This image was produced for NASA by John Frassanito and Associates.

  • (February 1995) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) As commerce develops on the Moon, tracts of the lunar surface will be dedicated to various industries such as lunar oxygen production, communications and helium 3 production. Artwork done for NASA by Pat Rawlings, of SAIC.

  • (February 1995) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) A large Arecibo-like radio telescope on the Moon uses a crater for structural support.

  • (February 1995) --- (Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.)

  • (February 1995)---(Artist's concept of possible exploration programs.) Earth's Moon, just 3 days away, is a good place to test hardware and operations for a human mission to Mars. A simulated mission, including the landing of an adapted Mars excursion vehicle, could test many relevant Mars systems and technologies.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts a crew preparing to leave a work site on the lunar surface.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts an observatory in a crater on the dark side of the moon.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts crewmembers involved in lunar drilling.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts a human tended lunar base.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts remote operations with a pressurized rover.

  • (April 2004) --- This artist's rendering represents a concept of possible activities during future space exploration missions. It depicts a crew involved in remote sensing on the lunar surface.

  • (12 Jan. 2008) --- A joint project among NASA, the National Space Foundation and ILC Dover continues at the McMurdo Complex in Antarctica. Team members drill into the tundra to install a weather station adjacent to the inflatable habitat in the upper left portion of the image. NASA and NSF along with the company that manufactured the prototype inflatabe habitat are using Antarctica's frigid, harsh, isolated landscape to test a new architecture for astronaut housing on the moon.

  • (16 January 2008) --- --- A joint project among NASA, the National Space Foundation and ILC Dover continues at the McMurdo Complex in Antarctica. Personnel with ILC Dover, the company that manufactured the prototype inflatabe habitat, work to fasten it down in the harsh environment.

  • (February 2009) --- Crew members, attired in suits designed to protect them from the rigors of the environment, traverse the lunar surface along with two Lunar Electric Rovers (LERs) in this art work depicting return to the moon activities.

  • (18-31 Oct. 2008) --- During tests conducted for NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, engineers, geologists and astronauts came together to test NASA's new Lunar Electric Rover.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST SCIENCE

Filed by Timothy Stenovec  |