exploration roadmap
The third version of the Global Exploration Roadmap, released in January, is the first to reach consensus on the role of the moon for future missions to Mars. Credit: ISECG

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A new version of a space exploration roadmap that firmly puts the moon on the path to Mars will be one topic of discussion at a meeting of dozens of space agencies this weekend in Tokyo.

The Second International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF2) will take place March 3 in Tokyo. About 45 countries and international organizations are expected to participate in the meeting, the first since the inaugural meeting in January 2014 in Washington.

Representing the United States at the meeting will be several officials, including National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace and NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, according to a March 1 statement by the U.S. State Department.

“The United States will engage in discussions on the significance of space exploration and benefits for humankind, future human and robotic space exploration programs and projects, common principles and frameworks for space exploration, and the role of the private sector in space exploration,” the State Department said.

A formal agenda for the meeting has not been released by ISEF2 organizers, but one area of discussion for the meeting will be the latest version of the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER), a document released in January by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group that outlines a general approach for human missions beyond Earth orbit.

That roadmap document, now in its third edition, was completed in time to support discussions at the ISEF2 meeting. “That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to get it out in January,” said Kathy Laurini, senior adviser for space exploration and operations at NASA, during a panel discussion at the 45th Space Congress here Feb. 28. “We wanted to get that document out to inform those discussions.”

Laurini said a couple of sessions at the main ISEF2 meeting will examine “the importance of this work and the opportunities created by this work.” The roadmap will also be a part of side meetings devoted to industry and young professionals.

The third edition of the document is the first to have general, broad consensus among the 14 space agencies participating on the path to reach the “horizon goal” of humans on the surface of Mars. “This new GER demonstrates that we have a complete consensus on the importance of the moon on the way to Mars,” she said.

The first edition of the roadmap, in 2011, included the “flexible path” concept that emerged from the 2010 Augustine Committee report on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program. The second, in 2013, offered a split approach, with some nations backing a return to the moon while the United States included an asteroid-focused alternative supporting the short-lived Asteroid Redirect Mission approach.

The roadmap features robotic missions to the moon through the 2020s, including those already announced by several nations, with human missions to the surface of the moon in the late 2020s.

It also incorporates NASA’s Deep Space Gateway concept for a cislunar outpost that could support robotic and human missions, which the agency recently renamed the Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway. NASA plans to develop the gateway was another driver for releasing the roadmap report now, Laurini said.

“We need to get going with this Lunar Orbiting Platform – Gateway,” she said. “Having a document that allows our partner agencies to interact with their stakeholders and say, ‘Here’s what I want to invest in and why we need to do it now’ was another motivator for getting it out soon.”

NASA plans to issue a solicitation for the first element of the gateway, a power and propulsion module, in April, said Tracy Gill, technology strategy manager at the Kennedy Space Center, during the panel discussion. That module would be launched in 2022 on a commercial vehicle, according to the agency’s 2019 budget request.

The Mars missions featured in the report include several robotic already in development through the early 2020s, followed by sample return missions in the late 2020s. Both the United States and China have notional plans for such sample return missions, but have not defined their approaches beyond the use of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover to cache samples for later return to Earth. Human Mars missions are mentioned later in the 2030s, with the goal of humans on the Martian surface no earlier than the latter half of the 2030s.

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...