Lockheed Martin
The L2-Farside Mission, a mission to the moon's far side depicted here, is being championed by builder of the Orion spacecraft, Lockheed Martin Space Systems. It is seen as an intermediate step toward more challenging missions beyond low Earth orbit.
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updated 11/24/2010 10:54:18 AM ET 2010-11-24T15:54:18

While NASA has officially given up its plans to send humans back to the surface of the moon anytime soon, a contractor is proposing a mission to send a crew to a stationary spot in orbit over the far side of Earth's neighbor.

Lockheed Martin has begun pitching an L2-Farside Mission using its Orion spacecraft under development. [ Illustration of the L-2 Farside Mission ]

The company says such an endeavor could sharpen skills and technologies needed for a trip to an asteroid as well as showcase techniques useful for exploring Mars by teleoperation as astronauts orbit the red planet. Both are stated goals under the new direction for NASA outlined by President Obama.

Last February, the White House issued its proposed NASA budget that aced out former President George W. Bush's Constellation program. That plan had benchmarked 2020 as the date to replant the feet of U.S. astronauts on the moon after the last set of moonwalkers departed the landscape back in 1972.

Instead, President Obama laid out the goal of sending astronauts beyond the moon and into deep space. He aimed to land people on an asteroid for the first time in history by 2025, and send a crew to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Lunar halo orbit
Space planners at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver  proposed using their Orion capsule to support an L2 farside moon mission one that allows an astronaut crew to have continuous line-of-sight visibility to both the entire far side of the moon and Earth.

The crewmembers aboard NASA's Apollo 8 mission in 1968 were the first to set human eyes on that hidden real estate permanently turned away from the Earth.

The Earth-moon L2 Lagrange point is where the combined gravity of the Earth and the moon allows a spacecraft to hover over one spot and be synchronized with the moon in its orbit around the Earth.

From a halo orbit around that L2 point, a crew would control robots on the lunar surface. Teleoperated science tasks include snagging rock specimens for return to Earth from the moon's South Pole-Aitken basin one of the largest, deepest, and oldest craters in the solar system as well as deploy a radio telescope array on the farside. [ Graphic: The moon's far side explained ]

"We have come up with a sequence of missions that we've named 'Stepping Stones,' which begins with flights in low Earth orbit and incrementally builds towards a human mission to the moons of Mars in the 2030s," said Josh Hopkins of Lockheed Martin's Human Spaceflight Advanced Programs department.

Shakedown cruise

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The first Orion missions to the moon's far side, viewed as feasible by 2016 to 2018, would accomplish science goals on the lunar surface using robotic rovers controlled by astronauts in space "as practice for doing the same thing at Mars," Hopkins told SPACE.com.

Hopkins said that the L2 missions would also be a "shakedown cruise" to practice medium duration missions and the higher-speed reentry needed for exploration missions before the next step - missions to asteroids. Those in turn, he added, demonstrate additional capabilities for longer and more distant exploration before the Mars orbit mission.

According to a Lockheed Martin white paper on the proposed concept, a number of benefits stem from such a mission:

  • Astronauts on an L2-Farside mission would travel 15 percent farther from Earth than the Apollo astronauts did - and spend almost three times longer in deep space.
  • Each flight would prove out the Orion capsule's life support systems for one-month duration missions before attempting a six-month-long asteroid mission.
  • It would demonstrate the high speed reentry capability needed for return from the moon or deep space 40 percent to 50 percent faster than reentry from low-Earth orbit.
  • The mission would measure astronauts' radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar flares to verify that Orion provides sufficient protection, as it is designed to do. Currently the medical effects of deep space radiation are not well understood, so a one-month mission would improve our understanding without exposing astronauts to excessive risk.

As scripted by mission designers at the aerospace firm, the mission plan is straightforward, performed using new or existing rockets and a configuration of Orion designed for lunar missions.

Mission plan
To land unmanned spacecraft on the surface of the moon's farside, NASA would have to develop a new moon lander, since plans for the Altair human moon lander under the Constellation program were axed.

The robotic lander and rover would be launched first on a slow but efficient trajectory to the moon, to ensure that the rover is on its way before risking the crew launch.

Next, three astronauts would be launched in an Orion spacecraft. If NASA has built a heavy lift launch vehicle by then, it would be capable of launching the crew directly to the moon.

If that mega-booster is a no-show, smaller rockets can be used instead, but a more complex arrangement would be required.

First, Orion would be launched to low-Earth orbit on a rocket such as a Delta 4 Heavy. Then, a modified Centaur upper stage would launch on a separate rocket. Orion would dock to the Centaur stage in orbit, and the Centaur would boost Orion toward the moon.

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Using either launch method, Orion would fly past the moon for a gravity slingshot maneuver toward the L2 point. Orion would use its propulsion system to enter a halo orbit around the L2 point.

Once at this vantage point 40,000 miles above the far side of the moon the Orion crew would be able to see both the entire far side of the moon, and the Earth.

From this unique slot in space, astronauts would control robots to perform various lunar duties. Astronauts would orbit the L2 point for about two weeks long enough to operate a rover through the full length of a lunar day.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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