NASA Adjusts Course On Journey To The Moon

It’s already been more than fifty years since a human last stepped foot on another celestial body, and now that NASA has officially pushed back key elements of their Artemis program, we’re going to be waiting a bit longer before it happens again. What’s a few years compared to half a century?

The January 9th press conference was billed as a way for NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other high-ranking officials within the space agency to give the public an update on Artemis. But those who’ve been following the program had already guessed it would end up being the official concession that NASA simply wasn’t ready to send astronauts out for a lunar flyby this year as initially planned. Pushing back this second phase of the Artemis program naturally means delaying the subsequent missions as well, though during the conference it was noted that the Artemis III mission was  already dealing with its own technical challenges.

More than just an acknowledgement of the Artemis delays, the press conference did include details on the specific issues that were holding up the program. In addition several team members were able to share information about the systems and components they’re responsible for, including insight into the hardware that’s already complete and what still needs more development time. Finally, the public was given an update on what NASA’s plans look like after landing on the Moon during the Artemis III mission, including their plans for constructing and utilizing the Lunar Gateway station.

With the understanding that even these latest plans are subject to potential changes or delays over the coming years, let’s take a look at the revised Artemis timeline.

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Lunar Gateway’s Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion Engine Passes Initial Qualification Tests

Recently NASA announced earlier this month that the 12 kW Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS) — which is scheduled to form an integral part of the Lunar Gateway when it is launched — has passed a number of qualification tests, after a rather tumultuous number of years during its development.

Top-Level PPE Conceptual Ion Propulsion System (IPS) Block Diagram. (Credit: NASA)
Top-Level PPE Conceptual Ion Propulsion System (IPS) Block Diagram. (Credit: NASA)

Originally designed since 2015 to propel the AARM mission to fetch rocks from an asteroid, when AARM was cancelled it became the cornerstone of the Lunar Gateway that should enable astronauts in the Artemis program to land on the Moon.

The AEPS is a solar electric propulsion system that uses xenon as its propellant, much like existing ion engines. Where it differs is in the power output, which should allow it to work as the primary propulsion method for large deep space and cargo missions. Much of the development and projections are covered in a 2017 presentation at the International Electric Propulsion Conference (IEPC).

Although the projected dates for much in this presentation (e.g. first flight of SLS Block 1 was in 2022, not 2018) are decidedly off, once the individual AEPS thrusters are validated, three strings will be mounted on the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) that forms the core of the Lunar Gateway and is scheduled to be launched in November of 2025.

Top image: AEPS installed for testing at NASA Glenn. (Credit NASA)

NASA Selects SpaceX To Launch Lunar Gateway

While not a Cabinet position, the NASA Administrator is nominated by the president of the United States and tasked with enacting their overall space policy. As such, a new occupant in the White House has historically resulted in a different long-term directive for the agency. Some presidents have wanted bold programs of exploration, while others have directed NASA to follow a more reserved and economical path, with the largest shifts traditionally happening when the administration changes hands between the parties.

So it’s no surprise that the fate of Artemis, a bold program initiated by the previous administration that aims to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon, has been considered uncertain since the November election. But the recent announcement that SpaceX has been awarded a $331.8 million contract to launch the first two modules of the lunar Gateway station, an orbital outpost that will serve as a rallying point for astronauts coming and going to the Moon’s surface, should help quell some concerns. While the components still aren’t slated to fly until 2024 at the earliest, it’s a step in the right direction and strong indicator that the new administration plans on seeing Artemis through.

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Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System

The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 is out, and with it comes cuts to NASA. The most important item of note in the proposed budget is a delay of the Space Launch System, the SLS, a super-heavy lifting launch vehicle designed for single use. The proposed delay would defer work on the enhanced version of the SLS, the Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage.

The current plans for the Space Launch System include a flight using NASA’s Orion spacecraft in June 2020 for a flight around the moon. This uncrewed flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, would use the SLS Block 1 Crew rocket. A later flight, EM-2, would fly a crewed Orion capsule around the moon in 2022. A third proposed flight in 2023 would send the Europa Clipper to Jupiter. The proposed 2020 budget puts these flights in jeopardy.

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NASA Is Building A Space Station In A Weird Orbit. Here’s Why

Representatives from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance participated in a forum last week held by NASA to determine the future of humans on the moon. This isn’t just how they will live, how long they will stay, or what they will do; no, this is far more interesting: this was how humans will travel from lunar orbit from the surface of the moon. The future of the next generation of lunar lander is being determined right now.

The plan right now is entirely unlike Apollo, which sent a pair of spaceships in orbit around the moon, sent one to the surface, then returned to the mother ship for the trip back to Earth. Instead of something somewhat simple, the next era of lunar exploration will happen from a gateway orbiting in cis-lunar space. What makes this so amazing is how weird the orbit is, and the reasons behind it.

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