Thales Alenia Space will build the two European modules of the NASA lunar space station. Interview

Today, the European Space Agency is kicking off its participation in the NASA Artemis program. It selects Thales Alenia Space for the realization of the Esprit and I-HAB modules of the future lunar space station LOP-G (Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway). Our explanations and insight from Franco Fenoglio, head of transport and manned flight programs at Thales Alenia Space.

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As part of the 2020 edition of the International Congress ofastronautics (IAC), the European Space Agency and Thales Alenia Space have formalized the contracts for the supply of Esprit and I-HAB, two communication, fueling and housing modules of the lunar space station from Nasa (the Gateway, also called the Bridge). They will be developed and built by Thales Alenia Space in Italy and France at a total cost of 622 million euros. These two modules are the European contribution for this lunar station and opens a new decade of European exploration towards Moon and Mars.

Let’s put aside the economic and social aspects of these two contracts – by signing them, theTHAT guarantees employment in Europe with its industrial partners, as well as the continuation of its Moon and Mars exploration program – to take an interest in the technical aspects of these two modules with Franco Fenoglio, head of human spaceflight programs and space transport at Thales Alenia Space (TAS), which provides some necessary clarification and clarification at the end of the article.

Esprit is a small communications and supply module made up of two elements. It includes storage and refueling systems propellant, elements of electric propulsion, communication systems with the Moon, interface points for external payloads and an airlock to deploy scientific payloads. The first element, named HLCS (Halo Lunar Communication System), will ensure communications between the Gateway and the Moon. It is slated to launch in 2024 with Halo (Habitation and Logistics Outpost).

The second part, ERM (ESPRIT Refueling Module) combines the refueling of the Gateway and a small pressurized module (a tunnel) equipped with large Windows offering a 360 ° view of space, the Moon, the Terre and the rest of the Gateway. ERM will ensure active refueling of the space station with chemical fuel and Xenon to extend its duration of life but also to prepare ” the use of a reusable lunar lander or transport to deep space, especially to Mars “. Its launch is scheduled for 2027.

As for I-HAB (International – Habitat), it is a pressurized module 7 meters long with a diameter of 4.5 m and a mass dry at launch between 8 and 10 tonnes depending on the launcher selected. It is equipped with “ habitability and life-sustaining capabilities, providing docking capabilities to provide interfaces and resources to passing vehicles “. Building on the legacy ” of pressurized elements of theISS realized by TAS and on new processes and technologies, I-HAB will represent the evolution of the elements of the ISS towards a new generation of exploration modules in deep space ».

I-HAB will meet evolving requirements and performance for lighter weight structures and optimized systems. protection against micrometeorites, mooring systems and trappes evolved, improved functional and avionics architectures, more efficient thermal control systems with radiators deployable to ensure diffusion of heat fully autonomous and innovative packaging systems “. I-HAB will for the first time experience long exposure to the deep space environment, providing the opportunity to test and demonstrate potential design solutions to provide protection against cosmic radiation.

I-HAB being unmanned most of the time when it will operate in orbit, ” solutions dedicated to operations robotic, both on board and outside the module must be implemented “. One of the key steps in the evolution of its design from ISS modules will be to use the virtual reality to develop more comfortable living interiors, in particular through modular and reconfigurable solutions to optimize the space and comfort of the crew. The launch of I-HAB is scheduled for 2026.

Futura: What materials will these two modules be made of?

Franco Fenoglio : The list is long, but just to give some interesting points relating to thermo-mechanical parts: the material typical for primary structures is thealloy d’aluminium, which will also be used for secondary structures that can also combine other solutions such as, for example, mousse moulable.

The micrometeorite protection part is designed with aluminum panels, the thermal radiators will be large size panels with mechanisms and fluid tubes. Passive thermal control will generally be carried out with PWMs (isolation multilayer) with use of fabric beta aluminized. Beta tissue is a type of tissue fire retardant in fibers of silica, similar to fiberglass. The windows will be designed with acrylic panels.

Futura: What existing module will I-Hab’s legacy be from?

Franco Fenoglio : The main structure of I-HAB should be derived from the primary structure of Halo (Habitation and Logistics Outpost), the first pressurized module which will form the gateway. In turn, Halo can be seen as an “evolution” and an “improvement” for the lunar orbit of the cargo Cygnus PCM (Pressurized Cargo Module). But, compared to a module for the ISS, we can say that the I-HAB will implement significant differences, despite the fact that it builds on the legacy and capabilities developed by Thales Alenia Space for ISS modules.

Futura: What should be understood by “solutions dedicated to robotic operations, both on board and outside the I-Hab module will have to be implemented”?

Franco Fenoglio : For outdoors, and to avoid extra-vehicular outings (EVA Extra Vehicular Activity), the modules can be equipped with robotic interfaces as robotic arms or even robots may reach to perform external operations, such as parts replacement, inspections, etc. Likewise, robotic interfaces can be implemented inside the module to allow robots to perform activities, either in a sort of “collaborative” approach with the crew (if applicable), or more autonomously. when the module is unattended; this, both for the maintenance, experimental operations, etc …

It should be noted that the robotic scenario is still being defined. So far, the design of the module mainly foresees the implementation of interfaces to enable future robotic operations.

Small parenthesis to underline that, as the Gateway will not be permanently inhabited unlike the ISS, it will therefore have to operate autonomously. We will equip the two I-HAB and Esprit modules with a robotic interface allowing maintenance and remote operations to be carried out.

Futura: Regarding protection against cosmic radiation from I-Hab, what are the solutions and concepts planned?

Franco Fenoglio : The necessary protection against radiation in the ISS is limited because theLEO orbits is still under the protection of the Van Allen belt. As we move away from the LEO orbit, this protection decreases and the modules must be equipped with specific protection against radiation. From now on, the permanence of the crew in the gateway will initially be quite limited (between 30 and 40 days) so, in this case, the protection offered by the structure of the module and its internal parts and equipment could be sufficient; or, at least, one could eventually start to implement only “local” shields, for example in the areas where the crew will rest and spend the most time. Note that an increased thickness of metallic materials (such as the aluminum shell of the module) is not very effective in terms of radiation protection, it is rather necessary to put in place layers of other materials, in particular with a good content of hydrogen – in this perspective, layers or blankets with water could be implemented as well as an acoustic solution.

Futura: During the first flights of Artemis, complete radiation protection in the Gateway module is probably not necessary?

Franco Fenoglio : For the first mission certainly yes. But if we consider the Gateway as a first opportunity for Europe to experiment with orbits already representative of the “distant” environment, it will certainly be worth using it to test technologies in orbit and design solutions. protection against radiation which will then become “mandatory” for future longer exploration missions, such as a trip to Mars.

Futura: Is the Spirit tunnel the legacy of the Cupola?

Franco Fenoglio : Le WIT (Window Tunnel) will of course be “inspired” by what was done for the ISS Cupola, but with a new design approach on certain aspects, in particular the materials and the compatibility-protection against the environment: the windows are designed to be designed in acrylic instead of glass, in particular to limit the launch mass, the glass being significantly heavier. The material must also be tested (and approved) against the space environment which is different in lunar orbit compared to low earth orbit. For example, protection against micrometeorites might be a little less demanding than with the ISS due to the absence of space debris in lunar orbit.

Futura: Is this a complex module to do? Hard spots?

Franco Fenoglio : The main structure of WIT by itself is not a major issue as it will be a standard aluminum pressurized module, although it is smaller in diameter than the module designed for ISS, which will require us to adopt new templates and production tools. Anyway, windows always represent singularities in the structure. Therefore, careful design must be carried out to ensure proper mechanical performance.

Typically the most complicated part is assembling the window due to the glazing but also thesealing to avoid and limit the risk ofatmosphere, the possible surface treatment to ensure the adequate optical properties, the qualification facing a new space environment (lunar) which could be demanding (for example in terms of thermal cycling); possible protection against moon dust (provided by lunar vehicles docked at the gateway when returning from the moon’s surface) could be another requirement to be faced.

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First flash trip to the Space Station – Space & Astronomy

It was faster than a Rome-Milan high-speed train, the Soyuz shuttle which in a record time of 3 hours and 3 minutes brought the US astronaut Kate Rubins and the Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov to the International Space Station (ISS) and Sergei Kud-Svertchkov. This was announced by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, rekindling the direct challenge with the United States which has recently regained the ability to bring astronauts into space thanks to Elon Musk’s private company Space X.

The Soyuz, launched from the Baikonur base in Kazakhstan at 7:45 am (Italian time), docked with the Space Station at 10:48 after having completed only two orbits around the Earth: so far this shortcut had only been attempted by the cargo Progress, unmanned on board, with a flight lasting 3 hours and 18 minutes. Very different times compared to normal human flights to the ISS, which usually last six hours: an important journey but much shorter than the two days that were used before 2013.

After the lightning flight aboard the Soyuz, astronauts Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Svertchkov were able to embrace their colleagues who were waiting for them aboard the Space Station: NASA commander Chris Cassidy and the Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. On Tuesday 20 October the handover between Cassidy and Ryzhikov is expected, who will thus become the new commander. On Wednesday, in fact, Cassidy, Vagner and Ivanishin will return to Earth with the same Soyuz that had brought them into orbit in April. With their departure, Expedition 64 will officially begin aboard the Space Station, during which two very important moments are expected: on November 2, 20 years of human presence on board the ISS will be celebrated, while it is scheduled for half or end of the month. the arrival of Space X’s Crew Dragon shuttle with the first private crew of four astronauts. Their launch, scheduled for late October, has been postponed due to problems encountered in the latest launch of the Falcon-9 rocket.