Thales Alenia Space: at the heart of lunar industrial challenges
We are kicking off the New Year with hope for the future. Today, Thales Alenia Space signed a contract with the European Space Agency to develop ESPRIT (European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications) for the upcoming lunar space station, Gateway. The contract is worth 296,5 million euros. Thales Alenia Space in France will be prime contractor on ESPRIT, working with Thales Alenia Space in Italy and in the United Kingdom to form a strong international core team, with key contributions from teams in Belgium and Spain.
ESPRIT comprises two main elements: HLCS (Halo Lunar Communication System), which ensures communications between Gateway and the Moon; and ERM (ESPRIT Refueling Module), which will provide Gateway with xenon and chemical propellants. In addition to extending Gateway’s service life, ERM will pave the way for a reusable lunar lander and deep space transport (to Mars). ERM features a pressurized tunnel with large windows offering a 360° view. Delivery is planned for 2026, with launch the following year.
But ESPRIT isn’t Thales Alenia Space’s only contribution to lunar exploration. Here’s a quick look at some of the other breathtaking projects now underway.
A Lunar Space Station
The Lunar Gateway is one of the pillars of NASA’s Artemis program, supporting a sustainable presence on the Moon and exploration beyond. It’s an international project, led by the two main contributors NASA (United States) and ESA (Europe). Weighing about 40 metric tons, the Gateway will be automatically assembled and placed in a highly elliptical orbit around the Moon. It mainly comprises habitation modules for the crew, power and propulsion systems, logistics modules, communications systems, a robotic arm and docking ports. It is not intended for permanent occupancy, but will be able to host 4-person crews for periods of one to three months.
Thales Alenia space is leading the development of I-HAB (International - Habitat), a pressurized habitable module that will provide crew living quarters, plus docking points for vehicles in transit. Drawing on Thales Alenia Space’s longstanding expertise in the development of pressurized modules for the ISS, along with new technologies and processes, I-HAB will mark the transition from the ISS to a new generation of space infrastructures for deep space exploration. It will meet evolving requirements for lighter structures and advanced micrometeorite protection systems, evolved docking systems and hatches, enhanced functional and avionics architectures, more efficient thermal control systems with deployable radiators and innovative air conditioning systems. For the first time, I-HAB will undergo long exposure to the deep space environment, allowing us to test potential solutions for protection against cosmic radiation.
Since I-HAB will be unmanned most of the time, it will also require dedicated solutions for robotic operations. In relation to the ISS, designers will call on virtual reality techniques to come up with more comfortable accommodations, using modular and reconfigurable solutions to optimize crew comfort and space. The European Space Agency (ESA) is responsible for this module, with contributions from other space agencies: Japan (JAXA) for environmental and life support subsystem, coolant pump motors and rechargeable batteries, NASA for core software and crew items, Canada (CSA) for robotic components. The integration of I-HAB relies on Thales Alenia Space’s vast experience, including Nodes 2 and 3 for the International Space Station. I-HAB is scheduled for launch in 2026.
Sustaining life in space
Thales Alenia Space recently signed a contract with Northrop Grumman to develop the pressurized module for HALO (Habitation and Logistics Outpost), one of the first two main Gateway elements, to be launched in 2023.
HALO, a crucial contribution from NASA, will be launched along with the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). Its primary purpose is to provide living space for astronauts and prepare for their trip to the lunar surface. It will also offer command, control and data handling capabilities, energy storage and power distribution, thermal control, communications and tracking capabilities. It will have three docking ports for visiting vehicles and future modules, as well as space for science and stowage. With NASA’s Orion spacecraft docked, it will be able to sustain up to four astronauts for up to 30 days as they explore the lunar surface.
Thales Alenia Space is in charge of designing and building the HALO primary structure (pressurized module), the module and vestibule pressure control, part of the micrometeorite protection system and the interface with NASA docking systems. The HALO design is derived from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft, a program that includes Thales Alenia Space as a longstanding partner.
HALO will be 3 meters in diameter, like the Cygnus Pressurized Cargo Module, but will be stretched by a meter to provide habitable volume for visiting crews, bringing the total length to about 7 meters.
Artemis, the key to a sustained human Lunar presence
The Gateway is a critical component of the agency’s sustainable lunar operations. NASA will integrate the first two components on Earth, launching the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) together in 2023, followed by a commercial supply launch.
In 2024, Orion will deliver its crew to lunar orbit. The commercially developed lander that will take the crew to the lunar surface will be capable of docking directly to Orion for crew transfer on early Artemis missions, but NASA is maintaining flexibility for optional docking to Gateway. On later Artemis missions, crews will arrive at Gateway on Orion, then conduct research and take trips down to the surface.
Orion, designed to take humans further than they've ever gone before
Orion is the new NASA spacecraft, designed to send astronauts further into space than ever before and consider that when they return to Earth, the astronauts will enter our atmosphere at speeds over 32,000 km/h but the capsule will ensure a safe – but bumpy! – landing.
Thales Alenia Space is working with ESA, alongside Airbus Defense and Space, to develop critical service module systems for all the flight model, including structure and micrometeorite protection, thermal control and consumable storage and distribution.
Thales Alenia Space recently delivered the third European Service Module structure, the one that will bring the first woman and the next man to the Moon in 2024.
Jumping down to the Moon
The Human Landing System (HLS) is a key to NASA’s Artemis program. This man-rated vehicle will enable astronauts to reach the lunar surface, live and operate on the ground for up to a week and then fly back to the lunar station.
A Dynetics-led international consortium is one of the teams chosen by NASA to design the Human Landing System, with Thales Alenia Space in charge of designing the main volume of the crew module, including the primary structure, hatch & Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA) door, windows and thermal and micrometeorite protection. The design of the pressurized cabin structure will progress at a much faster rate than the other components of the system, since it’s a key to the lander’s development.
The aim is to conduct the HLS Critical Design Review (CDR) by early 2021, following which NASA will select the best technical solution and authorize production of the first two flight models for the 2024 and 2026 missions.
Studies for a sustained human presence on the Moon
Along with current projects Thales Alenia Space has also been chosen to design advanced solutions for a sustained human presence on the Moon.
One of these visionary studies is EL3, or the European Large Logistic Lander (EL3). A free-standing part of international lunar exploration activities, it’s a versatile system designed to support a variety of missions. It is aimed to provide cargo and logistics services for NASA-led lunar missions via Artemis and support a European mission to study the Lunar South Pole with a robotic laboratory derived from the designed sample fetch rover.
Searching for water… and talking to Earth
To answer the critical question if whether there is water on the Moon, we have a Viper up our sleeve!
VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) is NASA’s latest lunar vehicle. It will explore the Moon’s South Pole to search for water ice and other potential resources using its three instruments and a 1-meter drill. The data collected by the rover will show where the Moon’s water ice is most likely to be found and easiest to access. The first water maps of the Moon will mark a critical step forward in NASA’s Artemis program. Furthermore, by identifying the lunar resources needed to produce oxygen and propellants, it would support future space exploration missions. The launch is planned for late 2023, and the mission will last about 100 days.
Thales Alenia Space is providing the X-band transceiver and X-band diplexer to ensure communications between the VIPER and Earth.
Thales Alenia Space, as part of the Space Alliance is partnering with Telespazio in studying for the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency the future of Moon’s Communication and Navigation systems, while working with CommStar Space Communications to design the next-generation hybrid Earth/Moon data relay satellite by 2023.
Towards a new Moon ecosystem
Humanity’s journey into space continues with these new landmark programs, Space is still the ultimate human frontier, but even the most ambitious and visionary projects are ultimately designed to offer a better and more sustainable life on Earth… and beyond!