NASA selects first science payloads for lunar Gateway

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WASHINGTON — NASA announced March 12 it will fly two heliophysics and space weather experiments on the lunar Gateway to collect data to help future human missions to the moon and beyond.

The payloads are the first science experiments selected to go on the lunar Gateway, a human-tended facility NASA plans to assemble in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon. The Gateway will primarily be used as a staging area for human missions to the lunar surface, but NASA has also promoted its use as a platform for science experiments, including those that can operate even when no one is on board.

One payload, provided by NASA, features a suite of instruments that will monitor space weather conditions. The other, from the European Space Agency, will measure radiation conditions there.

“Working with our international partners, asking them what their priorities were to fly at Gateway, we began to notice a few common themes,” said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, during a March 12 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee. Understanding the radiation environment and space weather conditions emerged as high priorities.

Bleacher described the two payloads as “complementary” in their ability to more completely characterize the space radiation environment around the moon. “They truly do represent a strong partnership between the agencies involved,” he said.

The NASA instrument in particular is designed not to use advanced components but instead those with high technology readiness levels (TRL) and which can be assembled quickly. “These are high-TRL instruments. They have a lot of flight heritage,” said Jamie Favors, a program executive in NASA’s heliophysics division, at the science committee meeting. “Some of these will be able to be pulled off the shelf and be ready to go very quickly.”

NASA, in neither its announcement nor at the meeting, disclosed the specific schedule for payload development beyond the need to be built quickly. The first Gateway module, the Power and Propulsion Element, is scheduled for launch in late 2022.

“We understand that this is an incredibly optimistic schedule and it is success oriented,” said Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division. “We’re taking risk on our ability to deliver the instrument but we would not take any risk on what we would actually put on the Gateway.”

NASA, in the announcement, emphasized that the payloads will not only support future Artemis crewed missions to the moon, but later human expeditions to Mars, continuing a “moon to Mars” theme that has emerged in NASA’s plans. “Using the Gateway as a platform for robotic and human exploration around the moon will help inform what we do on the lunar surface as well as prepare us for our next giant leap — human exploration of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in the statement.