NASA Studying Human-tended Scientific Waypoint Near Moon’s Far Side

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GOLDEN, Colo. — NASA is assessing the value of a “human-tended waypoint” near the far side of the Moon — one that would embrace international partnerships as well as commercial and academic participation.

According to a Feb. 3 memo from William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, a team is being formed to develop a plan for exploring a spot in space known as the Earth-Moon libration point 2 (EML-2). The study is due March 30.

Libration points, also known as Lagrangian points, are places in space where the combined gravitational pull of two large masses roughly balance each other out, allowing spacecraft to essentially park there.

An earlier NASA appraisal of EML-2, which is near the lunar far side, called this destination the “leading option” for a near-term exploration capability.

EML-2 could serve as a gateway for capabilities-driven exploration of multiple destinations, such as near-lunar space, asteroids, the Moon, the moons of Mars and ultimately Mars itself, according to NASA officials.

A capabilities-driven NASA architecture is one that should use the agency’s planned heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle “as the foundational elements.”

Gerstenmaier’s memo spells out six strategic principles to help enable exploration beyond low Earth orbit:

  • Significant international participation that leverages current international space station partnerships.
  • U.S. commercial business opportunities to further enhance the space station logistics market with a goal of reducing costs and allowing for private sector innovation.
  • Multiuse or reusable in-space infrastructure that allows a capability to be developed and reused over time for a variety of exploration destinations.
  • Application of technologies for near-term applications with research and development of new technologies focused on reducing costs, improving safety and increasing mission capture over the longer term.
  • Demonstrated affordability across the project life cycle.
  • Near-term mission opportunities with a well-defined cadence of compelling missions providing for an incremental buildup of capabilities to perform more complex missions over time.

According to strategic space planners, an EML-2 waypoint could enable significant telerobotic science on the far side of the Moon and could serve as a platform for solar and Earth scientific observation, radio astronomy and other science in the quiet zone behind the Moon.

Furthermore, the waypoint could enable assembly and servicing of satellites and large telescopes, among a host of other uses.

If NASA succeeds in establishing an astronaut-tended EML-2 waypoint, it would represent the farthest humans have traveled from Earth to date, the memo points out. Extended stays at EML-2 would provide advancements in life sciences and radiation shielding for long-duration missions outside of the Van Allen radiation belts that protect Earth, scientists say.

Gerstenmaier noted that moving forward on international, commercial and academic partnerships will “require significant detailed development and integration.”

Moreover, Gerstenmaier added, EML-2 “is a complex region of cis-lunar space that has certain advantages as an initial staging point for exploration, but may also have some disadvantages that must be well understood.”

A NASA study team is assigned the task of developing near-term missions to EML-2 “as we continue to refine our understanding and implications of using this waypoint as part of the broader exploration capability development,” the memo says.