Over half a century since humanity first stepped on the Moon, we are again striving to reach Earth’s neighbour in space. Humans could be walking on the Moon again as soon as 2024 thanks to NASA’s ambitious Artemis project, which encompasses three missions plus several logistic missions. The first Artemis mission, initially planned for 2020, is a test without a crew, after which two crewed missions will see astronauts travel to the Moon in Orion spaceships.
Meanwhile the European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos mission ExoMars, whose aim is to search for signs of life on Mars, is set to be launched in autumn 2022. Our extensive experience in complex scientific exploration missions – such the first European probes to Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury and the first spacecraft to land on a comet with Rosetta – is a great asset, and we are making major contributions to humanity’s quests to set foot on the Moon again and return samples from the Red Planet.
Facts and figures on our neighbours in space
- The Moon is about 4.6 billion years old, or about the same age as Earth
- The distance between Earth and its moon averages about 384,000 kilometres
- The rotation of the Moon – the time it takes to spin once around on its own axis – takes the same amount of time as the Moon takes to complete one orbit of the Earth, about 27.3 days. This causes the Moon to show the same face to Earth at all times
- Mars is the seventh largest planet in our solar system and about half the diameter of Earth. Its surface gravity is 37.5 percent of Earth’s
- Mars rotates on its axis every 24.6 Earth hours and a year lasts 687 Earth days
- Like Earth and Venus, Mars has mountains, valleys and volcanoes, but the Red Planet’s are by far the biggest and most dramatic. Olympus Mons, the solar system’s largest volcano, is three times taller than Everest
The European Service Module (ESM) will play a vital role in NASA’s Artemis I mission to the Moon. On behalf of ESA, Airbus is developing and building the ESM, which is the "powerhouse" of the US space agency's Orion spacecraft – a special achievement as the company is the first non-US provider to deliver such a mission-critical component for an astronautical mission. The ESM will provide propulsion, energy, air to breathe for the astronauts and thermal control.
On its first – uncrewed – test flight, Orion will be sent into space aboard NASA's new Space Launch System launcher. The first ESM module was delivered to NASA in November 2018. Artemis I will travel once around the Moon and back to Earth.
Airbus is already building the ESM for the second mission, which will be the first crewed Artemis mission and is set to take place in around 2022 or 2023.
The Gateway – a lunar orbital outpost
Building on their exceptional cooperation for the International Space Station (ISS), the international exploration community is again joining forces to establish a lunar outpost – The Gateway. It is envisaged that The Gateway will support the setting-up of a sustained presence in lunar orbit and on the lunar surface. With The Gateway, astronauts who are heading into space aboard the Orion spaceships will find a home base from where they can set off on further endeavours, be it to approach the Moon or continue their journey to Mars.
The Gateway will be built up through this decade via a coordinated international effort. While NASA is starting to implement the baseline modules – a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for launch in 2023/24 – ESA plans to contribute a large habitation module: I-HAB, similar to the Columbus module at the ISS. A second contribution from Europe is the European System Providing Refuelling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT), with a first element planned to be started with the US HALO module already in the 2023/2024 timeframe.
Airbus has been supporting ESA in the definition phases of both I-HAB and ESPRIT, which are now entering their implementation phases.
Lunar base made with 3D printing
CIS Lunar Transfer Vehicle (CLTV) – the transport vehicle
Logistics is a key capability in order to establish the sustainable exploration and exploitation of the lunar environment. ESA, together with its member states, agreed at their last ministerial conference to start the definition phases for a full European logistics vehicle supporting the transfer of goods between different destinations: the Earth and Earth orbits, between the Earth and Moon orbits and between Moon orbits.
This vehicle will be designed as a versatile platform to be utilised as a refuelling depot, cargo delivery vehicle or even as a large module delivery vehicle, e.g. for new human-rated infrastructure once the ISS reaches the end of its lifetime. The intention is to already launch this European vehicle during the course of the decade.
Over the last two years, Airbus has been offering ESA and its member states strong support to start the definition of CLTV. With Airbus’ Moon Cruiser concept, our Exploration teams in Toulouse and Bremen developed a feasible approach that leverages our expertise from the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the European Service Module (ESM). Airbus will also support ESA further along the road with the concrete definition studies, set to start in summer 2020.
Lunar transfer vehicle
EL3 – The European Large Logistic Lander
The Gateway and CLTV alone are not enough to establish a lunar surface presence. We will need to have a vehicle that can land and return again at a later stage to close the logistics loop. NASA aims to bring astronauts to the Moon by 2024 using the human landing systems (HLS), and Europe is expressing its interest to contribute with a robotic lunar lander.
The European Large Logistic Lander (EL3) is set to deliver scientific or logistic payloads to a location on the lunar surface. It aims to cover a range of missions, including cargo delivery, sample return or scientific and/or technology demonstration missions.
More specifically, EL3 is based on a modular multi-mission concept and will:
- establish an autonomous European capability, and is to be launched by the European launcher Ariane 6
- be sustainable, performing a cadence of three to four missions over the next ten years
- support a variety of missions, as mentioned above
Once developed, EL3 will allow independent European missions or missions in coordination with international partners. EL3 users will be routinely informed about how its development is progressing and are encouraged to contribute to the definition and continuous improvement of the system and the identification of the first set of three/four missions.
Airbus has been working intensively on a robotic lunar lander concept over the last two years. It came up with its “Moon Shuttle” concept just in time to support ESA and its member states with their decision to start the definition studies for this European mission capability at their last ministerial conference in late 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Airbus was contracted by ESA to start the definition phases.
The ExoMars rover mission – which is the first European rover mission to the Red Planet – will search for evidence of past or present life on Mars and help us better understand the history of water on the planet.
Named Rosalind Franklin in honour of the scientist who helped discover DNA, the Airbus-built six-wheeled autonomous navigation rover is equipped with a drill able to take samples up to two metres below the surface. They will be analysed on board the rover and the results sent to Earth. Its 3D panoramic camera will take images but also provide data on the surface texture and atmosphere.
Mars sample return mission
Airbus is working on two studies for ESA to design a Sample Fetch Rover and an Earth Return Orbiter. These two elements will be critical parts of a mission to return samples from the Red Planet to Earth before the end of the decade.
After launching to Mars in 2026, the Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve Mars samples left by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. The NASA rover will leave 36 pen-sized sample tubes on the Martian surface ready to be collected later. The Sample Fetch Rover will pick up the sample tubes, carry them back and load them into a sample container within the waiting Mars Ascent Vehicle. The Mars Ascent Vehicle will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit around Mars.
As a third part of the mission, ESA's Earth Return Orbiter will capture the basketball-sized sample container orbiting Mars, seal it within a biocontainment system and bring the samples back to Earth. The samples will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land in the US before 2030. Scientists from around the world will then be able to study the samples using the latest laboratory equipment and analysis techniques for years to come.
Sample Fetch Rover