Sunday, February 12, 2012

NASA eyes establishing orbiting lunar outpost


Cue the Pink Floyd because NASA may be turning their lunar attention toward the establishment of an orbital station parked above the dark side of the moon, in a region of space known as the Earth-Moon libration point 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 “park” there. According to Space.com, a Feb. 3 memo from William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, a team is being formed at the space agency to develop plans to explore one of those points.

NASA hopes to assess the value of establishing a “human-tended waypoint,” near the far side of the moon that would join international partnerships along with commercial and academic participants.

The waypoint would serve as a gateway for the exploration of other destinations such as near-lunar space, asteroids, the moon, the moons of Mars, and ultimately Mars itself, according to the published report. NASA would likely depend on the use of the agency’s planned heavy lift rocket, also known as the Space Launch System, along the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as “foundational elements,” which could be supplemented with inflatable habitat structures such as those being developed by Bigelow Aerospace.

Space.com reported:

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.

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.