The European Space Agency signed an agreement with US counterpart NASA on Tuesday (27 October) that confirms Europe’s involvement in building a space station in orbit around the Moon and clears the way for ‘Euronauts’ to set foot on the lunar surface for the first time.
Under the terms of the deal, the ESA will build essential communications and power components for NASA’s Orion spacecraft – designed to take astronauts to the Moon and even Mars – and a planned lunar space station known as the ‘Gateway’.
In return, ‘Euronauts’ will get at least three rides to the Gateway and potentially down to the lunar surface as well. Europe lacks its own crewed-launch capabilities and must rely on the US and Russia to reach orbit.
“This Memorandum of Understanding marks a critical point in Europe’s trajectory: it confirms we are going forward to the Moon, not just in terms of equipment and technology, but also with our people,” said the agency’s director-general, Jan Wörner.
The Gateway is due to be in orbit in 2024, the same year NASA plans to return to the Moon as part of the Artemis space programme. That lunar mission hopes to include a first female astronaut crew member.
“Europe will provide crew accommodation, telecommunications, refuelling and an amazing view of the Moon thanks to the ESA contributions to the lunar Gateway,” said ESA Director David Parker.
He added that “European astronauts will fly to the Gateway to live and work in deep space”. The international collaboration between ESA, NASA and other agencies is expected to result in a European astronaut stepping foot on the Moon for the very first time.
Earlier this month, ESA awarded hundreds of millions of euros in contracts for lunar and Martian exploration, including different modules for the Gateway station and an orbiter capable of retrieving samples of rock from Mars.
Airbus – one of the major aerospace firms contributing to ESA’s plans – announced on Tuesday that one of its research teams had developed a process than converts moondust into oxygen. It is a development that “could revolutionise human space exploration”, the company said.
“This breakthrough is a massive leap forward – taking us one step closer to the holy grail of being able to sustain long term living on the Moon,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, Head of Space Systems at Airbus.
The emissions-free ROXY process – which has applications on Earth – could be used to produce oxygen for human habitations on the lunar surface and, when combined with lunar ice, rocket fuel.
Although the ESA is contributing to a wide range of space missions, its lack of crewed-launch capacity is seen as a significant limiting factor for Europe’s ambitions in the cosmos.
A new rocket launcher, Ariane 6, is due to debut in 2021 and ramp up Europe’s standing in areas like satellite deployment but it is not designed to carry a spacecraft. Discussions are ongoing about developing that capability but nothing official has been announced.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]