NASA has chosen satellite producer Maxar Technologies to build the very first piece of the Moon Gateway – a new space station that the agency wants to create in orbit around the moon. The Gateway is intended as a future outpost for astronauts in NASA's newly minted Artemis lunar program. From this station, astronauts in landers travel to the surface of the moon and then travel back to the gateway before they go home.
Maxar makes what is known as the power and propulsion element of the Gateway. This is an important module that is needed to keep the station floating. It will be equipped with solar panels to provide electricity for the whole of the gateway, and it will also provide critical communication options between the station and the earth. In addition, the module has its own thrusters that can be used to maintain the position of the gateway in an orbit around the moon or to move the gateway to different types of lunar orbits, if necessary.
And NASA goes electric with this module. Instead of relying on burning chemicals to push the vehicle around, the thrusters of the gateway will move the space station with the help of electrical energy generated by the solar panels. Electricity will charge gas into the bow thrusters and then a magnetic field is used to push all that excited gas out of the rear end of the spacecraft, moving the vehicle forward. Known as electric solar energy, the technology requires about 10 times less propellant than a traditional bow thruster would need, according to NASA. That helps to save on weight, which is handy, because heavy chemicals from the earth take a lot of energy (and money).
Maxar Technologies has been producing large communication satellites for decades. Maxar is also famous for making the robotic arm at the International Space Station, and one of its 100% subsidiary SSL is also building a spacecraft for NASA's Psyche mission, which will explore a metal asteroid. NASA wants Maxar to first do an in-space demonstration with the module, and then the agency will buy the module from the company if that goes well. Once the power module has been completed, NASA plans to launch the vehicle on top of a commercial rocket. However, the agency did not choose which company missile the module will bring to the moon.
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 moon's surface by 2024. For the initiative, NASA plans to launch people to the Gateway on top of a huge rocket that the agency has developed, known as the Space Launch System or SLS. The astronauts will drive in a new crew capsule called Orion, which will dock at the Gateway. All moonlanders made for the Artemis program will also launch to the Gateway and dock at the station before traveling to the surface of the Moon. Last week, NASA selected 11 companies to study and build prototypes for human landers, although the space agency has not decided which companies will build the last vehicles.
In the end, NASA hopes that the Gateway will consist of several modules brought together by various commercial companies and international partners. But after Vice President Mike Pence instructed NASA to put people on the moon within five years, NASA now plans to first make a very limited gateway to speed up the first landing on the moon. This "skinny" gateway will consist of only a small habitat module attached to the power module that Maxar is building. That means that building and launching this module is essential for NASA's accelerated landing plans to work.