As part of the International Astronautical Congress, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it has signed contracts with Airbus and Thales Alenia Space to take part in returning to the Moon and bringing back samples from Mars.
Every year, the International Astronautical Congress, initiated by the IAF (International Astronautical Federation, based in Paris), brings together actors in the space sector from across the whole world. Between industry stands, scientific conferences and meetings of agency heads, this congress is also often the time for major announcements in terms of exploration and cooperation. Due to current health measures, its 2020 edition has been called “CyberSpace” (see this article), which hasn’t stopped significant events from happening. Accordingly, on 14 October, the European Space Agency (ESA) detailed its ambitions for the Moon and Mars.
LUNAR EUROPE WITH THE GATEWAY AND AN UNMANNED CARGO SHIP
For several years, a renewed interest in our natural satellite has been taking shape and has been expressed in exploration programmes on the part of space agencies with long-term ambitions which extend to establishing permanent bases on its surface. This subject is particularly referred to in the Moon: “Episode II” exhibition at Cité de l’espace in Toulouse.
NASA has consequently initiated the Artemis programme which aims to take “the first woman and the next man” to our celestial neighbour, if possible for 2024 as the White House asked. But Artemis is also structured around an international will to co-operate for which the European Space Agency (ESA) is a leading partner (see this article). With this in mind, the ESA announced on 14 October, that it was entrusting the industrialist Thales Alenia Space with producing two modules of the Gateway, the future station in lunar orbit.
I-Hab is a living module equipped with a docking port for vessels like NASA’s Orion capsule, which, let’s not forget, is equipped with a service module supplied by the ESA (made by Airbus). As for ESPRIT (European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications), it has two parts, one dedicated to communications with the Moon’s surface and another dedicated to providing fuel and xenon to ensure the long-term life of the Gateway.
While the American elections are looming, it’s a good question whether Artemis will survive a possible political change in the event of victory by the Democratic Party (the current tenant of the White House is a Republican). This raises the question of the sustainability of the ESA’s commitment to the Gateway station. On this point we contacted Didier Schmitt, from the ESA’s Manned and Robotic Exploration Directorate who stressed “that the Artemis programme is bipartisan,” which means it enjoys the support of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. A return to the Moon would therefore not be dependent on election results.
As it currently stands, I-Hab could be delivered in 2026 and ESPRIT in 2027. Didier Schmitt has stated that the ESA is already involved in three missions (distinct, not concurrent) with European astronauts aboard the Gateway. These will be missions around our natural satellite of one to three months with crews of four people, one of whom will sometimes be from the ESA. The ESA head is also “very optimistic about seeing a European on the Moon,” since the agency’s determination about the Moon is not limited to the station and the Orion service module. To those should be added EL3, the European Large Logistics Lander (video below) which will take off on top of an Ariane 6 launcher if this project is finally selected for the production phase by the next ESA Council of Ministers in late 2022.
With EL3, the ESA would then bring to the Moon programme an unmanned cargo ship capable of delivering 1.5 tonnes of scientific equipment and experiments to the surface of our natural satellite. The aim is to use it as the essential logistical partner for future manned missions. Thus, astronauts will arrive on the site to explore with one of the landers currently being developed by private industry for NASA, but the majority of the equipment required to carry out their work will be transported by the ESA’s EL3.
The European agency will also provide a drill and a miniature laboratory (entrusted to the Italian company, Leonardo) for the Russian Luna-27 probe. A commercial partnership, called Lunar Pathfinder, with the British company, Surrey Satellite Technology, aims to set up a telecommunications network around the Moon to improve radio exchanges and navigation on the lunar surface.
THE FIRST EARTH-MARS RETURN TRIP
At this moment, NASA’S Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars to land there on 18 February 2021. It has been equipped to be able to put the Martian soil samples, which scientists consider to be the most interesting, into sealed tubes. Subsequently an American craft will bring another rover, called the Sample Fetch Rover, which will have the task of recovering these tubes, to transport them to the NASA lander, which has a rocket aboard. This rocket will send the samples, housed in a container, into orbit around the red planet. From there, the unmanned ship ERO (Earth Return Orbiter) will pick up the container, then bring it back to Earth. The diagram below summarises this set of missions which form the scenario for the Mars Sample Return.
In this article, we made clear that the Sample Fetch Rover was entrusted to Airbus Defense and Space. On 14 October, ESA confirmed that the main contractor for the ERO ship will also be Airbus. It should be noted that Europe will then carry out the first return trip between Earth and Mars with the same craft, a real technological challenge! Through its major contributions to Mars Sample Return, the ESA guarantees European scientists access to the samples from the red planet. A major issue, since while rovers on the ground can carry out remarkable analyses with their on-board instruments, they can, however, not equal what can be done by laboratories on our planet.
Its lunar and Martian announcements involve, according to ESA, €2 billion in contracts for companies over the decade from 2020. Sums mainly spent in wages and which allow Europe to develop its own technological sector, and, incidentally, its independence in this regard, an essential feature in the knowledge society. Moreover, the systems which are the basis for the agency’s contribution are both essential and high-tech (accommodation modules in lunar orbit, unmanned cargo ship, Earth-Mars ship, etc.), confirming the capabilities of Europe’s space sector.