Nelson Aschabcher
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (left) and ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher signed a joint statement on lunar exploration cooperation Sept. 19 during the International Astronautical Congress. Credit: Twitter @AschbacherJosef

PARIS — NASA and the European Space Agency signed an agreement on cooperation on lunar exploration activities that could open the door to additional ESA roles in the NASA-led Artemis effort.

Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, announced Sept. 20 that he and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson signed a joint statement on lunar cooperation activities during the International Astronautical Congress. Aschbacher called the agreement a “valuable contribution” to ESA’s preparations for its November ministerial council meeting where it will seek funding for its programs for the next three years.

Neither ESA nor NASA published the agreement, which in a photograph appeared to be little more than one page. In a Sept. 23 statement, NASA described the agreement as a “non-binding joint statement” about current and prospective future cooperation in Artemis.

“The joint statement noted NASA and ESA cooperation on human space flight activities such as the International Space Station, Gateway, and the ESA-provided European Service Module for the Orion capsule, and highlighted ongoing discussions on future collaboration on the Moon,” NASA stated.

ESA provides the Orion service module and is also building components of the lunar Gateway, including the I-HAB habitation module and the ESPRIT refueling element. In return, ESA will get to fly three astronauts on later Artemis missions. Two of those are likely to fly on Artemis 4 and 5, missions that will deliver the European components to the Gateway.

ESA is considering additional programs that could be incorporated into Artemis. One, Moonlight, proposes to establish a communications and navigation network around the moon to support other missions. Another, the European Large Logistics Lander, is a cargo lander that could deliver heavy payloads to the lunar surface for science or to support Artemis missions. ESA will seek funding for both at the upcoming ministerial.

The agency’s hope is that those programs could be integrated into the overall Artemis lunar exploration campaign, providing services to NASA in exchange for additional seats on Artemis missions, including having a European astronaut walk on the moon.

Aschbacher mentioned both the European Large Logistics Lander and Moonlight in comments at a heads-of-agencies panel at the conference Sept. 18, saying that, if funded, they could be developed “in exchange for astronaut flights,” something he added was yet to be negotiated with NASA.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...