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NASA is officially ordering its first segment of a lunar space station

Artist & # 39; s conception of a spacecraft moving away from the Earth.

Maxar has been selected to build and fly the first element of NASA & # 39; s Moon Gateway.

NASA has chosen its first commercial partner for a proposed space station, known as the Lunar Gateway, to be built near the moon. On Thursday, Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, said that Maxar Technologies would build the first component of the Gateway – the power and propulsion element. As the name suggests, it will power the gateway and help it move.

"This time when we go to the moon, we actually stay," Bridenstine said when making the announcement. He has characterized the Gateway, which will be positioned in a high, elliptical orbit, balanced between the gravity of the Earth and the Moon, as a reusable "Command Module". Under NASA's current plans to allow people to land on the moon by 2024, astronauts will launch this from Earth before embarking on pre-set landers to take them to the surface of the moon.

Despite the fanfare on Thursday, Bridenstine gave an hour-long overview of NASA's ambitious moon plans at the Florida Institute of Technology for a relatively simple contract award – the announcement is a continuation of a Lunar Gateway plan set up under the Obama administration. The Obama space plan was about using the Gateway as a stepping stone to Mars, but now the Trump administration is turning to the surface of the moon.

There has been a somewhat heated debate in the aerospace community as to whether such a & # 39; n Gateway, which contributes to the delta-v energy needed to reach the lunar surface, helps NASA efforts or impedes to build a sustainable deep-space exploration program. Thursday's announcement left no doubt about the White House's embrace of the project, meaning that the Gateway concept has successfully survived a transition from one president to another.

Gateway could grow

The contract announced Thursday is worth up to $ 375 million. Intriguingly, Maxar said that Blue Origin and Draper will join the team in designing, building and operating the spacecraft. Such a partnership increases the possibility that the power and propulsion element, which will be filled up by around 5 tonnes, can be launched on the new Glenn rocket from Blue Origin.

During a teleconference with media, Mike Gold from Maxar said the company would choose a commercial rocket for launching the power and propulsion elements in the next 12 to 18 months. New Glenn is most likely the favorite launch vehicle, but Maxar protects itself if the rocket is not ready to fly in 2022 when NASA wants this hardware in space. (Blue Origin is currently working on a launch date for the powerful rocket for 2021, but large rocket projects often slip to the right).

The Gateway is a unique piece of hardware for NASA in the sense that it is the cornerstone of its first deep-space outpost. The station will use electric solar energy to maintain its orbit and have the ability to maneuver to other orbits around the moon. Before people visit the Gateway in 2024, the space agency plans to add a small "habitat" module.

In the course of the 2020s, NASA can expand the Gateway with other modules, including those from international partners. Officials said that the electricity from the solar panels of the power and propulsion element would be more than sufficient to make Gateway expansion possible.

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