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Solar electric propulsion
An artist’s conception shows a spacecraft that incorporates a solar electric propulsion system. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has laid out its plan for acquiring the first piece of its successor to the International Space Station, an outpost known as the Gateway that will be stationed in lunar orbit.

A draft solicitation, published today, calls for commercial partners to build one or more candidates to serve as the Gateway’s power and propulsion element, with launch set for 2022.

The Power and Propulsion Element would have a high-power, 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion system capable of maintaining the Gateway’s position and moving it between different lunar orbits as needed. The spacecraft would also serve as the Gateway’s communications hub.

There’s be an in-space flight demonstration of the commercial spacecraft, lasting for up to a year. Then NASA could exercise an option to acquire one spacecraft for use as the first element of the Gateway.

As the years progress, habitats and other modules would be added to the Gateway — which is envisioned as a platform for trips down to the lunar surface, and outward to Mars and other deep-space destinations.

The arrangement follows the public-private partnership model that NASA has used for cargo and crew transport services to the International Space Station.

“We believe partnering with U.S. industry for the power and propulsion element will stimulate advancements in commercial use of solar electric propulsion and also serve NASA exploration objectives,” Michele Gates, director of the Power and Propulsion Element project at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said today in a news release. “Our goal here is to gain input from industry on the draft solicitation to enable release of the final later this summer.”

There’s an industry forum set for next month, during which potential partners will be able to provide the kind of feedback Gates is looking for. The draft document says contracts would be awarded to one or more partners in March 2019, with launch planned for no later than September 2022.

Today’s draft solicitation marks the latest step in a years-long process to prepare for industry involvement in the Gateway project, which has also been known as the Deep Space Gateway, the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, or LOP-G for short.

Last year, five companies received funding to conduct studies into what’d be needed for the Power and Propulsion Element: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK (which is now part of Northrop Grumman), Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Systems/Loral.

NASA is also funding a different set of studies and demonstrations, focusing on habitats that could become part of the Gateway once the Power and Propulsion Element is in operation. The partners chosen for that part of the program, known as NextSTEP-2, include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp., NanoRacks and Bigelow Aerospace.

Still more public-private partnerships are being set up for commercial lunar payload services and in-situ resource utilization.

NASA is focusing on the Gateway as the first step in an effort to establish permanent settlements on the moon and send astronauts to Mars, in line with the White House’s Space Policy Directive 1.

“Since the directive was issued in December to return to the Moon, the agency has been moving full steam ahead with plans for robotic and human lunar exploration,” said Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA Headquarters. “It’s an exciting time to be at NASA, and we look forward to partnering with U.S. industry and international partners as we lead the return to the moon, and go beyond.”

NASA has been recruiting other nations, including Russia, to cooperate on the Gateway — which is slated to ramp up operations at the same time that NASA reduces its role on the International Space Station.

Not everyone is gaga about the Gateway: During this week’s meeting of the National Space Council, former NASA astronaut Terry Virts said the money and effort being put into the Gateway would be better spent focusing on a more direct path to lunar operations and deep-space travel.

As currently laid out, the plan “essentially calls for building another orbital space station, a skill my colleagues and I have already demonstrated on the ISS,” Virts told the council.

“Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars,” he said.

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