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Anatoly Zak

An international outpost near the Moon gets closer to reality

Posted By Anatoly Zak

03-11-2016 7:01 CDT

Topics: SLS, Humans to Mars, Orion, mission status, human spaceflight, International Space Station, Russian human spaceflight

International Space Station (ISS) project partners are inching ever closer toward an agreement to begin the development of a new human outpost in the vicinity of the Moon. If successful, the cis-lunar space station (a space station in the vicinity of the Moon) will be the largest international space project to date, influencing the direction of human space flight for decades to come.

During a closed-door meeting in Houston last week, NASA officials met their colleagues from Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada to discuss the latest changes to the cis-lunar space station concept. The team, known as the International Spacecraft Working Group, ISCWG, is charged with brainstorming all the technical details necessary to start the development of the new deep-space exploration program after the retirement of the ISS, now expected in mid 2020s. The team's recommendations are not binding, but will likely form the reference architecture for any future project.

The current vision involves a multi-modular outpost, essentially a smaller version of the ISS, but in the vicinity of the Moon instead of in Earth’s orbit. The outpost will also use more advanced technologies than those available on the ISS, such as closed-loop life-support systems and electric propulsion. These could enable the outpost to become the first interplanetary crewed spacecraft heading into deep space to explore asteroids or even reach the vicinity of Mars in the 2030s. To reflect that ultimate goal, NASA identified the facility as a “proving ground” for Mars exploration.

Lockheed Martin concept for a modular cis-lunar base

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin concept for a modular cis-lunar base

What will it look like?

The cis-lunar outpost would be built primarily out of modular components riding NASA’s giant SLS rocket as hitchhikers along with the Orion spacecraft. Following its insertion into trans-lunar trajectory, the Orion crew capsule would separate from the booster stage, turn around and dock with the add-on module still attached to the booster stage, very much like Apollo crews did to extract their lunar modules in the 1960s.

However, instead of landing on the lunar surface, each Orion mission would bring an add-on module to the vicinity of the Moon, where they would all be bolted together to form a long-term habitat. Other countries could launch their own components, as with the ISS program.

Assembly sequence

According to the latest architecture worked out by the partners, the construction of the outpost would start with a 8.5-ton power and propulsion module launched during the Orion’s third Exploration Mission, EM-3.

Recently, the European Space Agency agreed to provide an additional cutting-edge electric engine unit, which would help to propel the first module. Both American and European electric thrusters would be fed by xenon gas. The same module would also provide power supply and communications for the entire outpost. Last but not least, Canada would build a robotic arm, which would be strapped to the propulsion module and later used on the outpost.

Once the power and propulsion capabilities are in place, a pair of habitation modules would be delivered and attached to it in two subsequent Orion missions, EM-4 and EM-5. Previous incarnations of the plans envisioned these components being built in Russia or Europe, but the Japanese space agency has recently offered to contribute its own habitat. The Japanese habitat would feature a closed-loop life-support system, greatly reducing dependency of the outpost on deliveries of water and oxygen from Earth.

Also this year, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, agreed to consider contributing an airlock module for the outpost, which would be used for spacewalks. During its ride to the lunar vicinity with the Orion spacecraft, the airlock would be packed full of supplies for the future station, bringing its launch mass to around nine tons. Alternatively, Roscosmos could launch the airlock module independently, using its new-generation Angara-5 rocket, upgraded with a high-power hydrogen space tug.

Theoretically, Russia could also support the international program with its next-generation transport spacecraft dubbed Federatsiya (Federation), which is expected to be the only alternative to the Orion in bringing crews to the outpost. As of today, Roscosmos promises the first crewed flight of the new ship in the low Earth’s orbit in 2024, followed by the first mission to lunar orbit in 2027. Although SpaceX and other private providers are likely interested in providing transportation services to a cis-lunar program, only the NASA Orion and Roscosmos CTV spacecraft appear on the official schedule.

The cis-lunar space station could also be complemented by a 10-ton robotic vehicle developed jointly by ESA, Japan, and Canada. It could be equipped with a rover and an ascent stage for returning soil samples from the surface of the Moon. The robotic vehicle could be launched independently on a rocket provided by one of the partner agencies in 2026, at the earliest. Once the probe lands on the Moon, a crew onboard the cis-lunar outpost could remotely operate the soil-sampling rover on the surface and then launch the ascent stage for the subsequent transfer of samples back to Earth.

In the course of its assembly and operation, the cis-lunar outpost could be resupplied by cargo vehicles launched on a variety of rockets.

During the second phase of assembly, at the end of the 2020s, the outpost would be complemented with NASA’s newest habitation and propulsion module launched on a dedicated SLS rocket. This latest addition could make it possible for the outpost to embark on the first mission into deep space.

Where do they stand?

Sources familiar with the matter say that after years of negotiations, the international team made enough progress to reach an agreement in the near future, which would see ISS partners all contributing components and technologies for the common goal. The initial phase of development of the cis-lunar outpost, known as Phase A, could then go ahead in 2017 or 2018.

During the Houston meeting this month, it was decided to postpone the beginning of the habitat construction by around a year until 2023. Under this scenario, the first phase of the outpost would be completed in 2028. Of course, if history of the ISS is any guide, many delays are very likely.

There are several political developments coming even this year, which can throw a monkey wrench into the carefully constructed schedule. Obviously, the first being the US presidential elections, which are notorious for changing the course of the American space program. Next, comes a meeting in December of the European ministers drawing the ESA’s budget for the next several years. And another wild card in the project is the Russian involvement, which remains uncertain due to an array of political, financial and technical problems.

Not surprisingly, partners scheduled the next meeting on the cis-lunar outpost at the beginning of next year. Although 2017 is just two months away, it could very well be in another era for space exploration…

Anatoly Zak is the publisher of and the author of Russia in Space: the Past Explained, the Future Explored.

See other posts from November 2016


Read more blog entries about: SLS, Humans to Mars, Orion, mission status, human spaceflight, International Space Station, Russian human spaceflight


Stargazed: 11/03/2016 07:29 CDT

The international community is moving forward at a painful pace, but at least they appear to be moving again. I suppose SpaceX can earn some money with supply flights for this cis-lunar outpost. If they use the ITS for cargo they can get a lot of stuff there (350 metric tons) in one go.

dougforworldsexplr: 11/03/2016 09:05 CDT

I am glad to hear of a project like this with international co-operation and serious commitment especially to deep space. I also agree with it being consistent with the current American priority towards a manned landing and establishment of a human base on the surface of Mars. I am also glad that this vision includes operating unmanned rovers on the surface of the Moon. However I sincerely hope that part of this vision would include setting up a long-term human outpost on the Moon that despite the been there done that attitude of President Obama to especially human exploration of the Moon we haven't explored the surface of the Moon any better than if we landed 6 times in the Americas or in Asia or in the combined area of Africa and Europe. Each of these three combined land areas on Earth are approximately the same area as the total surface area of the Moon that I think is about 18 million square miles. So, will this new vision include a human capable and cargo capable ascent/descent module to the surface of the Moon. It would be a shame to have the international community spend so much effort, time and money on a large project like this on a project just a stone's throw from the surface of the Moon and neglect the opportunity to use it to establish a long-term human base on the surface of the Moon especially when more water has been found on the surface of the Moon that thought before by the Indian space orbiter and the American Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. I think throughout the surface they found about a pint of water in a cubic meter of rock although only in a tightly bound mineral state but it could probably still be heated for steam. The recent Chinese Chang-e lander proved that there are still new things to be found on the Moon with it finding more layers of rock in the Mare Imbrium location than I think in any of the Apollo landing sites. The surface of the Moon with about 1/2 the gravity on the surface of Mars would also be a much better proving ground.

dougforworldsexplr: 11/03/2016 09:16 CDT

I am glad to see my home country of Canada is represented as a likely contributor to this possible international cis-lunar space station. However shouldn't a possible new international space station or base also include the significant space-faring nations China and India?

Red: 11/03/2016 12:20 CDT

This seems like the reasonable next step after ISS. If there's going to be any return to the Moon, it will probably be an international one. With any luck we'll see a cis-lunar station acting as a waypoint for expeditions to firstly the Moon and perhaps Mars. I'd put more focus on Mars but NASA should at least keep a supporting role if its partners have the Moon on their minds.

Skip: 11/03/2016 01:26 CDT

As exciting as something like this sounds, what I don't see in the article is the purpose of such a mission. Is it just to gain experience operating in "deep(er)" space? Or are there some other science objectives? Would we see this as something lasting 25-ish years of continuous manning, which is about the same expected lifespan of the ISS?

Keith: 11/03/2016 02:08 CDT

Out of curiosity, does "cis-lunar" in this case mean it will be in lunar orbit, or maybe at one of the Lagrange points (L1, L2, L4, or L5)? I can see advantages and disadvantages to any of the options above. Or are they being intentionally vague to keep their options open?

reader: 11/03/2016 09:06 CDT

Please please please lets learn the operational lessons from ISS - No single launch vehicle on the critical path - No manned assembly steps - Modularity needs to go further, so elements can be swapped and upgraded over time - It needs to be able to act as a staging post, not just as a laboratory. Anyway, who is funding this and which international agreement or policy document is backing it ?

Paul McCarthy: 11/04/2016 03:25 CDT

Judging from the new Blog Post: "Long March 5 launch blasts China into age of space station and deep space exploration", the developments foreseen in the Blog Post above may be rendered slow-footed and irrelevant by China. If China pulls off an "orbiter, lander and rover will head for Mars in summer 2020", it will mean they have virtually caught up with the US, and may well then be ahead of Europe and Russia. Hopefully (I think one can say presumably) they will head extremely rapidly for Mars life detection and for sample return. Even more hopefully, they will head equally rapidly for life detection on Europa and Enceladus, missions to Ceres etc, all to demonstrate supremacy over the US (and everyone else)! These would be devastating blows to US prestige. But the fact is that the prospect of such an outcome might trigger a new "space race', and a golden age of planetary exploration. So I have to say I'm hoping for it.

DnitryNovoseltsev: 11/05/2016 02:06 CDT

Это все-таки не МКС. Станция будет постоянно находиться за пределами радиационных поясов Земли, а это совсем другой уровень радиационной нагрузки.
Недавно были озвучены данные долговременных исследований, согласно которым продолжительность жизни астронавтов, летавших на Луну, значительно ниже, чем космонавтов, работавших на околоземной орбите.
В этой связи целесообразно оборудовать станцию электростатической защитой от ионных потоков.
Я бы рекомендовал специализированный модуль, вроде этого: А предварительно провести с помощью беспилотных аппаратов отбор проб пыли в окололунном пространстве - прежде всего, в точке L1:
Иначе есть риск загрязнить неизбежными биологическими утечками из системы жизнеобеспечения станции уникальную среду, в которой есть небольшая, но ненулевая вероятность сохранения простейших организмов, некогда вынесенных из атмосферы Земли и сохранившихся за счет развития резистентности к неблагоприятным космическим факторам. Обнаружение таких образцов было бы очень интересно.
Хотя в принципе, при соблюдении мер безопасности можно осуществлять такой отбор и со станции.

Frigate: 11/14/2016 03:49 CST

Federation maiden manned flight planned for 2023, and Roskosmos also confirmed that man-rated Angara A5P would be ready to fly from Vostochny (upon completion of launchpad) from 2021.Not sure about cryogenic space tug KVTK (aka RUSSIAN Centaur) that slipped from 2021 to 2025 :(

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