Earlier this year we heard some exciting chatter about a NASA plan to build a space station on the far side of the moon. Now it seems that, though they won't confirm it, the space agency is moving closer to making that a reality, if only temporarily.
The idea, which would expand human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since Apollo 17 in late 1972, is to use libration points, also known as Lagrange points, to "park" a spacecraft at a fixed point. These points occur where the gravitational pull of two different cosmic bodies cancel out, basically creating a parking space.
Right now, it seems NASA is most interested in Earth-moon libration point L2 on the far side of the moon. For one thing, it's actually easier to get to even than lunar orbit, and if we sent a craft out there it would be the farthest that human space explorers have ever flown. It's also located beyond Earth's Van Allen radiation belts, which would give us an opportunity to see how astronauts live for an extended period of time outside of those belts.
Though it's only officially existed so far as an idea, sources tell Space.com that the L2 base idea is gaining "support" within the agency as a way to move human exploration beyond low Earth orbit and utilize Lockheed Martin's Orion spacecraft design. "Insiders" speaking to Space.com also said there's a possibility that leftover space-shuttle-era hardware and Russian space station components could be used for the project, further bolstering the international space cooperation that we've been building for years on the ISS.
"Such a habitat builds clearly on the legacy of ISS—both the habitation technology and the potential for international partnerships. Doing something that clearly links back to our huge investment in ISS looks smart. Just sending multiple Orions to L1 or L2 doesn't do that," said Dan Lester of the University of Texas astronomy department.
But beyond the international cooperation, an L2 base would also bolster our exploration and use of the moon. A base there would allow astronauts stationed at the L2 point to launch and control robotic rovers on the moon, which would collect samples from previously unexplored locations. It would also allow us to boost communication capability by placing an antenna on the lunar surface. But even beyond that, it would represent the next generation of space exploration, a generation that could eventually land us on Mars.
So what does NASA say about all this? Well, while it may be very interested unofficially, their official stance is much more cautious.
"NASA is executing President Obama's ambitious space exploration plan that includes missions around the moon, to asteroids, and ultimately putting humans on Mars," the agency said in a statement. "There are many options -- and many routes -- being discussed on our way to the Red Planet. In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk -- and make it easier -- to get to Mars."
So, even if NASA is well on its way to an L2 base, it's no closer to admitting it. But that doesn't mean it won't happen, especially with broad support from the scientific community.
"This first step back into interplanetary space...it's the lowest risk because you're talking about mission durations of one to two months and only a few days to get back to Earth," said Jack Burns, director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR) Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
"There's no reason why we can't do this mission later in the decade,"