Image: Telerobotics
Lockheed Martin
An artist's conception shows astronauts in NASA's Orion capsule helping direct robotic teleoperations on the moon's far side.
By Space Insider columnist
updated 2/12/2012 2:38:54 PM ET 2012-02-12T19:38:54

NASA is pressing forward on 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, Space.com has learned.

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 cohesive plan for exploring a spot in space known as the Earth-moon libration point 2 (EML-2).

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.

A pre-memo NASA appraisal of EML-2, which is near the lunar far side, has spotlighted this destination as the "leading option" for a near-term exploration capability. [Gallery: Visions of Deep-Space Station Missions]

EML-2 could serve as a gateway for capability-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."

The memo spells out six strategic principles to help enable exploration beyond low-Earth orbit:

  • Incorporating 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.
  • The application of technologies for near-term applications while focusing research and development of new technologies to reduce costs, improve safety and increase 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.
Image: Lagrange points
David A. Kring / LPI-JSC Center for Lunar Science and Exploration
The Lagrange points for the Earth-moon system are the places where the gravitational pull exerted by the two celestial bodies balances out. NASA is evaluating an early mission with the Orion capsule placed at Earth-moon L2. Astronauts parked there could teleoperate robots on the lunar far side.

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.

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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."

Study due by April
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 explains.

The study is targeted for completion by March 30.

A working group of International Space Station members — a meeting bringing together space agencies from around the world — was held in Paris last week, and NASA’s EML-2 strategy was expected to come up.

Bullish on the promise of telerobotics exploration of the moon from EML-2 is Jack Burns, director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR) Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. LUNAR is funded by the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

Burns and his team have been collaborating with Lockheed Martin (builder of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) for more than a year to plan an early Orion mission that would go into a halo orbit of EML-2 above the lunar far side.

"This is extremely exciting from both the exploration and science sides," Burns told Space.com. "This mission concept seems to be really taking off now because it is unique and offers the prospects of doing something significant outside of low-Earth orbit within this decade."

Proving ground in deep space
In collaboration with Lockheed Martin, the LUNAR Center is investigating human missions to EML-2 that could be a proving ground for future missions to deep space while also overseeing scientifically important investigations.

In a LUNAR Center white paper provided to Space.com, researchers note that an EML-2 mission would have astronauts traveling 15 percent farther from Earth than did the Apollo astronauts, and spending almost three times longer in deep space. [Lunar Legacy: Apollo Moon Mission Photos]

Such missions would validate the Orion spacecraft's life-support systems for shorter durations, could demonstrate the high-speed re-entry capability needed for return to Earth from deep space, and could help scientists gauge astronauts’ radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar flares. Doing so would help verify that Orion provides sufficient radiation protection, as it is designed to do, researchers said.

On such missions, the white paper explains, Orion astronauts could teleoperate gear on the lunar far side. For instance, the moon-based robotic hardware could obtain samples from the geologically appealing far side — perhaps from the South Pole-Aitken basin, which is one of the largest, deepest and oldest craters in the solar system.

Also on a proposed lunar robotic agenda is deployment of a low-frequency array of radio antennas to observe the first stars in the early universe.

Among a number of research jobs, the LUNAR team has been investigating how modest equipment could be used to fuse lunar regolith into a concretelike material, which could then be used for construction of large structures, without the expense of having to carry most of the material to the lunar surface.

Image: Antenna rollout
Joe Lazio / JPL
The robotic rollout of an antenna, shown in this artist's conception, would be aimed at creating an array of low-frequency radio antennas to observe the first stars in the early universe.

The ability to fabricate hardened structures from lunar regolith could also foster on-the-spot creation of solar arrays, habitats, and radiation shielding and maybe, even roadways on the surface of the moon.

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

Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

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