The US space agency’s Lunar Space Station – Gateway will orbit the moon in an ellipse. And NASA and the European Space Agency believe it can be assembled in the next decade. The station will act as a half-way house between the Earth and the Moon. This making trips to the Moon more efficient in addition to providing a launch pad for deep space missions.
The Gateway will be a permanent base on which astronauts will live for extended periods, conducting research on-board and making regular visits to the lunar surface.
After months of consideration and debate, mission planners from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have calculated the best orbit for the next generation space station.
Instead of tracing a low, circular orbit around the Moon like the Apollo spacecraft, Gateway will follow an elliptical path known as a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit.
The station will go around the Moon at one end of its loop and, at the other, a so-called Lagrangian point, where the forces between the Earth and the Moon are balanced against the centripetal force of orbital motion.
This orbit will help astronauts make round trips to and from the Moon every seven days — when the station is closest to the moon, only 1,860 miles (2,993km) distant via a lunar lander.
The lander could also be used to transport equipment, robots and building infrastructure to the lunar surface.
European Space Operations Centre mission analyst Florian Renk, said: “To escape Earth’s gravitational pull requires a huge amount of energy.
“To then land on the Moon and not hurtle straight past it, we have to slow down by losing that same energy.’
“We can save some of this energy by leaving parts of the spacecraft in orbit, taking only what we need to the surface of the Moon.”
When the station reaches the furthest point of the orbit it will be approximately 43,000 miles (69,202km) from the moon — allowing better observations into deep space and granting easier access to the Earth.
The orbit will also bring the station in line with the Earth’s South Pole, where astronauts are also reportedly planning to build a new base.
ESA space mission planner Markus Landgraf added: “Finding a lunar orbit for the gateway is no trivial thing.
“If you want to stay there for several years, the near rectilinear halo orbit is slightly unstable and objects in this orbit do have a tendency of drifting away.”
Given this, the Gateway will need to occasionally ignite station-keeping thrusters in order to maintain its intended orbit around the moon.
Like the International Space Station, the Gateway will serve as a scientific laboratory, observatory and communications relay, alongside helping space agencies gain valuable experiences in preparation for future crewed missions to Mars.