Moon Monday #79: A Japanese landing on the Moon, a good Gateway, Lunar Outpost rovers and more updates

A Japanese astronaut will land on the Moon with NASA’s help

On May 23, the U.S. and Japan extended their collaboration on Artemis human lunar exploration from the NASA-led Gateway space station to the Moon’s surface. In addition to the previous arrangement of providing seats to Japanese astronauts on Gateway in return for the country’s crucial contributions to said station, the U.S. now intends to have a Japanese astronaut on an Artemis mission to the Moon’s south pole.

This development comes after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a revised national space policy roadmap last year, which made it a priority to put “Japanese boots on the moon” by the late 2020s. Also last year, Japan’s space agency JAXA announced a plan to recruit new astronaut candidates for the first time in 13 years. The selected astronauts, to be announced later this year, will be sent either to the International Space Station or the lunar Gateway and surface.

The NASA announcement also mentions the potential inclusion of “Japan’s lunar rover” on Artemis surface missions, presumably referring to the JAXA-Toyota autonomous, crewed pressurized rover. Note that the upcoming Artemis Lunar Terrain Vehicle, as versatile as it maybe, is the less capable type of the two rovers in Artemis Base Camp, which aims to build the infrastructure necessary for at least a few astronauts to live for long periods on the Moon. The other is a pressurized, habitable rover, which would enable astronauts to explore the Moon’s south pole up to 45 days at a time.  It would seem that Japan’s rover is a candidate for the same. The aforementioned revised Japanese space policy roadmap also urges development of a crewed lunar rover and other systems essential for human lunar activities.

Update from JAXA’s presentation at the LEAG 2022 Annual Meeting: Their rover is being designed to work on the Moon for at least 10 years, and cumulatively travel more than 10,000 kilometers. It can even enter small permanently shadowed regions if traverse routes involve slopes less than 20 degrees.

Illustration of the JAXA-Toyota crewed Lunar Cruiser rover. A large solar panel covers the other side. Astronaut added for (rough) scale. Credits: JAXA, Toyota

Gateway’s collaborative goodness

After Gateway launches in late 2024 as two combined U.S.-built modules—the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO)—on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the station will attain its operational unique lunar orbit in 2025. Extending Gateway’s capabilities starting 2027 will be modules built by other countries like Japan, Canada and Europe, each of which will get crew opportunities onboard in return for their contributions. NASA seems to be successfully extending the collaboration model of the International Space Station to the Gateway.

In return for seats to Japanese astronauts on Gateway, the specific arrangement of which will be formalized later this year, Japan will provide life support systems to the station’s International Habitation module (i-HAB), which includes space for crew to live, work, and conduct research. Japan is also providing batteries, thermal control systems, and imagery components for i-HAB. These capabilities will reduce the Gateway’s logistical supply demands, allowing it to sustain crewed and uncrewed operations for much longer. Moreover, Japan is developing the advanced HTV-X spacecraft to supply cargo to the Gateway.

Illustration of Japan’s HTV-X cargo supply spacecraft approaching the NASA-led Gateway lunar station. Credit: JAXA

Canada has a similar arrangement with NASA to get two crewed lunar opportunities for Canadian astronauts—one seat on Gateway and one on Artemis II—in return for Canada providing the Gateway’s highly autonomous Canadarm3 robotics servicing system. Similarly, Europe has bagged at least three Gateway seats for their astronauts in return for ESA contributing the Orion spacecraft’s critical service module and the Gateway’s i-HAB habitation module as well as the ESPRIT communications & refueling module.

Despite Gateway’s collaborative benefits of letting multiple nations grow their lunar technologies and deep space operational experience, there’s a strong resistance in space communities to the very idea of the station being any useful. Bob Mahoney, a Space Shuttle spaceflight instructor, clears several misconceptions regarding Gateway in a comprehensive article and convincingly argues that the Gateway’s foundational idea is worth preserving, chief of which is its ability to be a servicing facility for inbound and outbound deep space (and lunar) spacecraft.

My takeaway from the article is that Gateway is best seen as an independent deep space campaign catering to numerous objectives rather than just a tool to the lunar surface. From the lens of this non-U.S. citizen, I also think such good faith international collaborations often outlast entire programs and specific projects while benefiting areas beyond space exploration.

Lunar Outpost, the little Moon rover company that’s growing up

Last week Lunar Outpost announced they’ve raised $12 million in seed funding, which will help them launch a bigger class of autonomous lunar rovers, improve existing offerings, and build more testing and manufacturing facilities. This is a good time to list everything Lunar Outpost has been up to in the Moon-sphere for context.

Artist’s impression of the solar-powered Lunar Outpost rover exploring the swirl of Reiner Gamma on the Moon. The cylindrical structure on top is the mast for the magnetometer. Credits: JHU APL / Lunar Outpost / Ben Smith

More Moon

A Moon Monday update

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