ESA Issues Call for Deep Space Gateway Research Ideas

ESA Issues Call for Deep Space Gateway Research Ideas

The European Space Agency (ESA) issued a call for proposals today seeking ideas for research that could be conducted on a Deep Space Gateway (DSG) in cis-lunar space. They will be discussed at a December ESA workshop.  NASA is developing the DSG concept, but the Trump Administration did not include any funding for it in NASA’s FY2018 budget request.

NASA’s DSG concept is for a small facility in orbit around the Moon that can serve as a staging point for a variety of missions down to the lunar surface or out to Mars as well as a research lab. Programmatically, it is a successor to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that was to be the next step for NASA’s human exploration program, taking astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for the first time since the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, in 1972.

President Trump cancelled ARM as one of his first space policy decisions after taking office, but he has not announced what his own administration has in mind for NASA’s human spaceflight program.  NASA is trying to build support for DSG.

NASA Deep Space Gateway conceptual drawing. Credit: NASA

DSG essentially is a small space station — a habitat module outfitted with a power and propulsion system derived from the high power solar electric propulsion technology that was being developed for ARM, plus a logistics module and an airlock. NASA officials stress it will not be another International Space Station (ISS). Instead it will be much smaller and astronauts will not live aboard it permanently.

NASA describes Phase I of its deep space human exploration program as the DSG, which would remain in lunar orbit, with crews traveling back and forth to it on Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System (SLS).  Orion and SLS are both under development.  The first SLS/Orion launch carrying a crew, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), officially is scheduled for 2023, although NASA wants to accelerate it.  That mission would deliver the power and propulsion module, with the habitat sent there on EM-3, followed by a logistics module on EM-4 and an airlock on EM-5.  All of those launches would take place by 2025 according to a July 25, 2017 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee by Greg Williams, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.

International cooperation is a cornerstone of the ISS and NASA is encouraging its ISS partners — Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe — to continue working together in the future.  ESA already is building the service module for Orion and developing its own plans for the Moon. ESA Director General Jan Woerner has been a leader in advancing the idea of what he calls a Lunar Village (or Moon Village) with robotic and/or human-tended facilities on the surface.

Today’s ESA call for proposals, however, is only for conducting research on the DSG itself.

Excerpt from European Space Agency (ESA) report: ESA Workshop: Research Opportunities on the Deep Space Gateway, July 27, 2017, ESA-HSO-K-AR-0000

ESA lists these “nominal resources” that will be available on the DSG, noting they are “notional.”

Proposals are solicited for life sciences, physical sciences, solar system science, earth sciences, astronomy and astrophysics, technology and “other areas of a more applied nature.”   The deadline for submissions is September 29.   The workshop will take place at the European Space Technology and Research Centre (ESTEC) in The Netherlands from December 5-6, 2017.

In an emailed statement to, NASA said ESA’s workshop “precedes a future NASA workshop on cislunar science.” Currently, NASA is conducting a study internally and working with academia “to determine what high-quality science can be conducted” and what resources are required. ESA’s call for proposals “is similar to our efforts to understand what technologies and interest exists, which will ultimately help us to define the gateway requirements.”

NASA’s workshop is planned for February 2018.

NASA, the other ISS partners and other countries participate in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), which issued a Science White Paper in December 2016 exploring ideas for science in cis-lunar space and beyond.

The DSG’s future, however, depends on decisions yet to be made by the Trump Administration.  Many in the space community are hoping Trump will reinstate returning U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon to NASA’s human exploration plans.  President George W. Bush set NASA on that path in 2004, but President Obama announced in 2010 that he saw no need to return to the Moon.  He cancelled Bush’s program, Constellation, and directed NASA instead to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 (the ARM program) as a steppingstone to putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s.  Trump cancelled ARM, however, leaving NASA in limbo for the moment.

There is widespread support for the goal of sending humans to Mars, most recently codified in the FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act that Trump signed into law in March.  As has been true since Apollo 17, it is consensus on the steps in between that remains elusive for both philosophical and budgetary reasons.

All eyes now are on the newly reincarnated White House National Space Council to come up with a plan.  Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the Council, said its first meeting will take place before the end of summer, which is just a few weeks away.

The Trump Administration has not yet nominated a new NASA Administrator, however, a critical individual for participating in such decision making.  Logically one would expect that an announcement would be made before the Council meets even if the person could not be confirmed by the Senate by then.  Indeed, rumors that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been chosen for the job have resurfaced in the last week.

Putting someone in the top job at NASA sooner rather than later is also important because agencies like NASA submit their FY2019 budget requests to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in September. DSG’s future may well ride on whether it gets into the FY2019 request or not making it all that more essential that decisions be made imminently.

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