07Jul2019

Why Lunar Gateway Will Be a Lot Smaller Than the ISS

Part of the plan to get astronauts back to the moon by 2024 is an orbital base of operations that will circle the lunar surface. Dubbed the Lunar Gateway, this space station will provide the tools to make this lunar habitation possible.

Now, when we say space station, you probably picture something like the International Space Station (ISS) that currently orbits our little blue marble in a Low Earth Orbit, but the Lunar Gateway won’t look like the ISS — at least not to start. Why will the lunar station be so much smaller than those we’ve seen and created in the past?

What Is the Lunar Gateway?

First, what is the Lunar Gateway and what does it mean for human space travel?

The Lunar Orbital Platform, named Gateway, will eventually be a solar powered communications hub, laboratory and short-term habitation module for lunar astronauts. It will sit in orbit around the moon and will provide support for the Artemis astronauts that will station on the lunar surface.

Eventually, it will look something like this:

While the artist’s rendering looks similar to what the ISS looks like now, it won’t start that way.

Is it Bigger Than a Breadbox?

In 2022, if all goes to plan, NASA will launch the first piece of Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element. During the first stage of the Artemis missions, Gateway will be a stepping stone to convey astronauts from orbit down onto the lunar surface.

This isn’t Gateway’s final form, as this bare-bones version of the station will only be capable of supporting two-person missions to the satellite’s surface. It will be bigger than a breadbox, but not by much. It will have minimal life support capabilities and just enough docking ports to handle the initial Artemis missions.

As Phase 1 nears its end and the mission moves to Phase 2, NASA will add more modules to the station, equipping it for everything from scientific research to spacecraft refuelling, depending on what the missions require.

New Challenges, Further From Home

Life on the ISS isn’t easy, compared to life on the ground, but it is a lot simpler because the station rests in a low earth orbit, protected by the planet’s magnetosphere from solar winds, radiation and other interstellar hazards. Once you leave that protective bubble, surviving in space becomes more challenging.

The Lunar Gateway will need to be capable of surviving these harsh conditions while protecting the Artemis astronauts. Temperature spikes from -101 to 288 C could freeze or cook an astronaut in seconds. The Orion capsule, which will carry the Artemis crew from Earth to their temporary home on the lunar surface, will need to maintain an interior temperature of 25C or 77F — comfortable and more importantly, survivable.

Orion, Gateway and the Artemis base on the lunar surface will also need to be capable of surviving the harsh radiation and solar winds, as well as protecting the inhabitants from any potential impacts. The moon gets hit with more than 2,800kg worth of meteor material every single day. If just one of those meteoroids punctures the hull, it could result in the death of the entire Artemis crew.

To the Moon and Beyond

Gateway and the Artemis missions aren’t the finish line for NASA. Establishing a permanent residence on the moon is only one piece of the puzzle that will eventually take astronauts to Mars and beyond. Spending too much time or too many resources trying to build the International Space Station Part Two in orbit around the moon will delay our missions to Mars.

The Lunar Gateway station will serve as a stepping stone to the cosmos, but it won’t start big.

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Written By: Megan R. Nichols – Associate Editor of Astro Space News

Megan is also a freelance science writer & the Editor of Schooled By Science.

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