This article is taken from the monthly journal Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche #913 of March 2023.
Turin, the capital of Piedmont in Italy, is usually associated with the production of Fiat cars. What is less known is that it also plays a major role in European and American manned spaceflight, notably having built half of the pressurized volume of the International Space Station (ISS).
It is here, under the glass roofs of the giant industrial workshops of Thales Alenia Space (TAS), that the first of four modules of the future Lunar Gateway space station is being assembled today. The 3m-diameter cylindrical parts portend what will soon become NASA’s Halo Halo Halo and Logistics Module, one of the first two Gateway components to launch in 2025. Aluminum alloy panels are designed to protect the crew from micrometeorite impacts and cosmic radiation. The US module will also serve as a command, communications and energy management center. With three ports to which spacecraft can dock, it can accommodate four astronauts for 30–40 days.
A kind of witness pavilion has been assembled in the adjacent industrial building, allowing you to imagine the daily life of future residents of the European-Japanese I-HAB module, which will then expand the living space of the station. The space in which the astronauts will be able to eat is equipped with flexible cabins that allow them to isolate themselves for sleep, and a place for scientific experiments devoted, in particular, to the cultivation of edible plants. This living space, 5.9 m long and 3.4 m in diameter, together with the American Halo module, makes up a total habitable volume of 125 m3 (compared to 388 m3 for the ISS).
“This model represents all the technological developments that have been made for the Gateway modules,” explains Franco Fenoglio, head of the planetary exploration program at TAS. made of acrylic, cheaper and lighter than glass. But under the influence of the space environment, it may turn yellow. The design of the module with a built-in porthole is the first. Today, astronauts always ask for a window, even if everything is dark in deep space. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano explains that being able to look outside relieves feelings of confinement and claustrophobia.
Autonomous robotic interfaces
Gateway Station was proposed by NASA in 2017, initially as a training base for future missions to Mars and asteroids, tasks assigned to it under the presidency of Barack Obama. At that time, the US space agency was already building the Orion spacecraft and the heavy SLS (Space Launch System) launch vehicle, more powerful than the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo mission. Their construction was decided in the 2000s after the abandonment of the Space Shuttle. But now, in 2019, President Donald Trump is finally giving NASA a course for the moon.
Thus was born the Artemis program, which plans to use the circumlunar station as a relay base between the Earth and the lunar surface. This conquest of the moon will be carried out with the help of the historical partners of the ISS (Europe, Japan, Canada), with the exception of the Russians, as well as with new private actors. For example, SpaceX, the company of billionaire Elon Musk, will facilitate the transport of Gateway elements and manned flights with its Falcon Heavy and Starship launchers.
Assembly of the Lunar Gateway is scheduled to begin in 2027 in an elliptical orbit passing over the south pole of the moon. This orbit, extending from 3,000 to 70,000 km from our satellite, is favorable for communication with the Earth. The embryo station will initially consist of PPE (power and propulsion element) and Halo (living and logistics outpost) modules. The former will provide power and propulsion with its solar panels: in this way, it will be able to maintain the station in its orbit or move it to other lunar orbits. The Halo residential area, which will also take control of the Gateway, will provide a springboard of sorts. Its docking ports will allow it to both receive ships arriving from Earth and organize expeditions to the surface of the Moon thanks to the Human Landing System (HLS) landing and ascent to the station.
The future space station Lunar Gateway (artist’s view). The first of its components, NASA’s Halo habitation and logistics module, is being assembled in Turin, Italy, at the Thales Alenia Space plant. Credit: THALES ALENIA SPACE
NASA plans to first prioritize landing sites around the South Pole, and gradually increase the time of ground expeditions in the 2030s. The purpose of the astronauts will be to explore the lunar environment with the goal of “staying there permanently, working there in accordance with government and commercial purposes,” explains Bill Nelson, NASA administrator.
The problem of lunar resources
The Artemis Accord, drafted by the United States and signed by 23 states as of 2020, establishes a set of principles designed to organize the occupation and future exploitation of the moon. This is now governed by the 1967 treaty, which treats all celestial bodies as “the prerogative of mankind” that no one can appropriate. But the current appetite of governments and individuals for the Moon requires new rules, in particular to establish safe zones “inside which the state can carry out activities without interfering with other entities,” explains Alexandre Chazelle, a doctoral student in space law at Cnes, the French space agency. But opponents of these agreements fear that the so-called research area will eventually become a lunar mine.” Or appropriation of common space. And if this affects reservoirs with rare ice water, the melting of which is currently prohibited by the rules, then the rate will be strategic. This explains why the Chinese are worried about the American space program, which could encroach on their space ambitions by preempting the south pole of the moon, where these famous reserves of frozen water are concentrated. France signed these agreements in June 2022. China, Russia and Germany vs.
The European I-Hab body and the Esprit refueling modules, intended to supply spacecraft in particular, will eventually complete the station, which will ultimately not exceed 40 tons, ten times less than the ISS. Since they will often be uninhabited, the modules must be able to operate independently. Therefore, they will be equipped with robotic interfaces to allow maintenance and operations to be carried out remotely. In particular, articulated arms, which will also be used by crews to control experiments in the space environment.
The first three scientific instruments have already been selected. Two of them will be installed outside the station to monitor the solar wind and high-energy radiation in order to establish space weather for astronauts. A network of dosimeters placed inside Halo will measure the effectiveness of protection against this carcinogenic radiation, which can also have harmful effects on the cardiovascular and nervous systems of astronauts.
After 2027, the stages of the new conquest of the moon remain uncertain, and the Americans are moving forward step by step. However, the Artemis program is on the right track. The first launch of the Orion capsule with the SLS on November 16, 2022 allowed this unmanned spacecraft to circle the Moon in 25 days before landing in the Pacific Ocean. The data recorded on this occasion will ensure the next flight of the Orion, which will carry four astronauts for a new orbit around the moon in 2024. First of all, this is the landing of Artemis 3 in 2025, which will really sanctify the return of the Americans to the moon. The moon, abandoned since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The next mission will focus on assembling the first Gateway modules, also with a moon landing. Interestingly, NASA has enlisted a private SpaceX starship to perform these latest moon landings. This includes a delicate rendezvous operation in lunar orbit between Orion and Starship… However, the latter, of unprecedented design, has never flown before!
Field of useful experiments for Martian missions
In the longer term, NASA is considering a permanent installation on the Moon by building a lunar base there. This could be done through 3D printing, using regolith, or investing in vast, as yet unexplored lava tunnels that appear to extend several tens of meters below the basalt. They could provide natural insulation from cosmic radiation and very large day and night temperature differences on the surface.
Water extracted from ice stored in craters, permanently shaded, would supply this base. Many private companies are already working on developing solutions for living and working in this environment. “Now there is a new competition for the production of landing solutions, radiation protection, 3D printing for the manufacture of spare parts or even food production systems,” Franco Fenoglio describes. The moon is a land of experience where we can develop and test various systems that will then allow us to survive on Mars. It is also an opportunity to learn how to use the resources of the lunar soil.” In fact, it is supposed to extract the hydrogen captured by the regolith to produce fuel.
Due to its lower gravity, which requires less energy to extract than on Earth, the Moon could serve as a service station for ships bound for Mars and beyond. In the meantime, engineers are working tirelessly under the glass roofs of Turin. They are running out of time, because the Halo module should be delivered at the end of the year to the American industrialist Northrop Grumman.
Ten years of ambitious schedule
2022 ARTEMIS 1: This first 25-day unmanned mission tested the systems of the Orion spacecraft during a flyby of the moon.
2024 ARTEMIS 2: Four astronauts are due to fly over the Moon again aboard Orion. On this occasion, SpaceX will fly a demonstration flight of its lunar lander.
2025 ARTEMIS 3: First crewed landing on the moon since 1972 on a spacecraft. Beginning of the gateway station assembly.
2027 ARTEMIS 4: The program’s second manned landing mission using the Starship spacecraft.
2028 ARTEMIS 5: Supply of European Esprit technical module to Gateway. The first tests of lunar rovers.
2031: Four crews are expected to spend 30 days at the Gateway and on the lunar surface.