NASA has chosen satellite manufacturer Maxar Technologies to build the very first piece of the lunar Gateway — a new space station the agency wants to create in orbit around the Moon. The Gateway is meant to serve as a future outpost for astronauts in NASA’s newly minted Artemis lunar program. From this station, astronauts will travel in landers down to the Moon’s surface, and then journey back up to the Gateway before heading home.
Maxar will be making what is known as the power and propulsion element of the Gateway. This is a key module needed to keep the station afloat. It will be equipped with solar panels to provide electricity for the entirety of the Gateway, and it will also provide critical communication capabilities between the station and Earth. On top of that, the module has its own thrusters that can be used to maintain the Gateway’s position in orbit around the Moon or move the Gateway to different types of lunar orbits if needed.
And NASA is going electric with this module. Rather than rely on combusting chemicals to push the vehicle around, the Gateway’s thrusters will move the space station using electric energy generated by the solar panels. Electricity will charge up gas inside the thrusters, and then a magnetic field is used to push all that excited gas out of the back end of the spacecraft, moving the vehicle forward. Known as solar electric propulsion, the technique requires about 10 times less propellant than a traditional thruster would need, according to NASA. That helps to save on weight, which is helpful, since getting heavy chemicals off of Earth takes a lot of energy (and money).
Maxar Technologies has been manufacturing large communications satellites for decades. Maxar is also famous for creating the robotic arm on the International Space Station, and one of its wholly owned subsidiaries SSL is also building a spacecraft for NASA’s Psyche mission, which will explore a metallic asteroid. NASA wants Maxar to do an in-space demonstration with the module first, and then the agency will buy the module from the company if that goes well. Once the power module is finished, NASA plans to launch the vehicle on top of a commercial rocket. However, the agency hasn’t chosen which company’s rocket will carry the module to the Moon yet.
The power and propulsion element of the Gateway is a crucial piece needed for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land a man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon by 2024. For the initiative, NASA plans to launch humans to the Gateway on top of a massive rocket the agency has been developing known as the Space Launch System, or SLS. The astronauts will ride inside a new crew capsule called Orion, which will dock with the Gateway. Any lunar landers that are made for the Artemis program will also launch to the Gateway and dock with the station, before traveling to the surface of the Moon. Last week, NASA selected 11 companies to study and build prototypes for human landers, though the space agency hasn’t decided which companies will build the final vehicles.
Eventually, NASA hopes the Gateway will consist of multiple modules strung together from various commercial companies and international partners. But after Vice President Mike Pence instructed NASA to put people on the Moon within five years, NASA is now planning to make a very limited Gateway first, to expedite the initial landing on the Moon. This “skinny” Gateway will consist of just a small habitat module, attached to the power module that Maxar is building. That means getting this module built and launched is essential for NASA’s accelerated landing plans to work.