Over half a century after humanity first stepped on the Moon, we are again striving to reach the Earth’s neighbour in space. Humans could be walking on the Moon again as soon as 2025 thanks to NASA’s ambitious Artemis project. The first Artemis mission (performed in 2022) was a test without a crew, after which two crewed missions will see astronauts travel to the Moon in Orion spaceships, including a visit to the Lunar surface as part of the Artemis III mission.

Airbus’ European Service Module Powers NASA’s Orion Spacecraft

TheEuropean Service Module (ESM) plays a vital role in NASA’s Artemis missions to the Moon…and beyond.

On behalf of ESA, Airbus is developing and building the ESM, which is the "powerhouse" of the Orion spacecraft – a special achievement as the company is the first non-U.S. provider to deliver such a mission-critical component for an American human spaceflight mission. The ESM provides propulsion, power, water and air to breathe for the astronauts, along with thermal control.

The first ESM module was delivered to NASA in November 2018. On its first uncrewed flight from 16 November to 11 December 2022, Orion was sent into space aboard NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) launcher. Artemis I traveled around the Moon and back to Earth.

Airbus has already delivered the ESM for the second mission, which will be the first crewed Artemis mission and is set to take place in 2023. Artemis III, set to see the first woman and first person of colour set foot on the Moon, is currently envisaged for 2025, with the ESM 3 being assembled in Airbus’ cleanrooms in Bremen today.

Orion EMS Moonscenario Copyright NASA

Within the Artemis programme, NASA will use a European built system to power and supply a human spacecraft mission for the first time.

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.

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.  

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).

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
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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.


Airbus is aligning all the bricks for a lunar ecosystem

Together with partners from industry and research institutions, Airbus succeeded in extracting oxygen and metals from regolith. In testing, we generated 0.2 litres of oxygen from simulated regolith in just a short time. This is a small first step, but the way towards an operational system is now clear. ROXY (Regolith to OXYgen and Metals Conversion) is a simple, inexpensive process – but most importantly, and unlike similar attempts around the world, it requires no materials from Earth and could revolutionise human space exploration.

Navigating the future 

Airbus is a leading developer of Vision-Based Navigation (VBN) systems, which use optical sensors and state-of-the-art techniques to provide localisation information for moving vehicles – providing a robust alternative when GPS (Global Positioning System) services are unavailable or insufficient.

VBN infographic

VBN is relied upon for some of the most exciting – and critical – moments of space exploration: rendezvous (including meetups with orbiting space stations); reentry, descent and landing; as well as extending to interplanetary travel. It also has terrestrial applications, supporting aircraft and drones.

VBN is a vital component to several high-profile missions, including PILOT (Precise and Intelligent Landing using Onboard Technologies) – a key European element to be flown to the Moon on the robotic Luna-Resource lander mission as part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) cooperation with its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos. The JPL-led Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission and ESA’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) will also be enabled by VBN.

Applications leveraging Airbus’ VBN expertise for orbital rendezvous and On-Orbit Servicing include International Space Station supply missions using European Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV), along with the Space Tug and Moon Cruiser. Rendezvous also extends to uncontrolled objects, and covers space debris removal around the Earth with the remarkable RemoveDebris mission and its many debris capture prototypes, or rendezvous manoeuvres in the vicinity of Mars with the Mars Sample Return mission.

For detailed information about VBN solutions, contact


Computer Vision: computervision@airbus.com

GNC Advanced Studies: gnc@airbus.com

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SurRender Software

Exploring the far reaches of space requires highly precise mission preparations, and since 2011 Airbus has developed SurRender, a precise and flexible image simulation software to support all development phases – from preliminary sizing and feasibility studies to validation and testing.

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