(UPDATED*) Space.com, etc: Here’s an idea percolating for NASA’s astronaut corps: Space Station EML-2

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Well, this is intriguing. After writing my rant yesterday implying a near-uselessness of taxpayer dollars going to support major manned space exploration, I arrive late to a party in which  a few outlets covered one possible NASA’s exploration mission that has not gotten much previous, public attention. It is, at least, something new and diverting. At Space.com its veteran and savvy reporter Leonard David has it under the head NASA Eyes Plan for Deep-Space Outpost Near the Moon. The post is dated Feb. 10, and appears to be the trigger for a flowering of additional coverage.

The idea is to build a space station near Earth, but invisible. It would hover at Earth-Moon libration point L-2, or EML-2, one of several kinks in their combined gravitational fields that allows a body to hover in place with little or no effort. This one is about 36,000 miles beyond the Moon’s far side, or behind it as we look at it.It is about 15 percent farther away than the Moon itself. Is that deep space? I don’t know but it is deeper than people have gone. The justifications:  1) to be a “human-tended waypoint” to test equipment for interplanetary exploration including a visit to an asteroid and 2) While there to teleoperate semi-autonomous robotic vehicles and other science-platforms on the side of the Moon shielded from direct radio signals from Earth. One payoff to the project, David reports, could be to spark greater private-sector investment in space travel. How, it’s not clear.

One hopes to see incisive reporting on whether and why having people midway in that communications loop, rather than just here on Earth giving machines their orders, is such a hot idea. One can, after all, bounce radio signals to and from the Moon’s far side via other libration points or lunar-orbit communication satellites. The delay is only a second or two. If one is planning an asteroid expedition, why is a far-side space station a particularly good stepping stone? As an adventure, it clicks. As less boring than an Apollo-esque new series of moon landings and bases, it’s thumbs up too. As a solution to a problem, not so much. But that may just be my ignorance of the possibilities.(See Grist below for link to one source of answers, including ‘cognitive horizons’).

Other stories:

  • PC World – Jason Kennedy: NASA Plans an Outpost on the Far Side of the Moon ; Lame hed. It’s not on the moon. How much more evocative not to mention, uh, true would it be to say “…beyond the Far Side of the Moon.” Story derived largely from L. David’s piece.
  • Popular Science – Clay Dillow: In Midst of Budget Wores, NASA Contemplates a Manned Waypoint in Orbit Near the Moon ; Again, David’s story is the prime source.
  • Daily Mail – Damian Gayle: Nasa plots deep-space base just past the dark side of the moon as a ‘stepping stone’ to Mars ; Dark side, huh? Sigh. It is the Daily Mail after all, a pub. with  no bright side. The story itself is a rewrite relatively free of idiocy. That’s because it is a rewrite of David’s space.com report, with several acknowledgments of its source.

 

Grist for the Mill: A University of Texas astronomer, Dan Lester, is credited with one illus (up and left on this post) to Leonard David’s story. A search turns up more on him, including a slideshow presentation of arguments for this EML-2 telepresence, human-occupied station. At the link, scroll down in the archives of lectures to “On-Orbit Lunar Telerobotics and Telepresence from Earth-Moon Lagrange Points.” One sees that discussion of such stations has an extensive history.

*UPDATE – As seen in his comment below, thank you, Daniel Fischer points us to an article that astronomer Lester, to whom there is reference in the preceding graf, wrote an article for Space Review on telepresence that puts that slideshow I tumbled across into plain, stirring English. Suddenly the idea of sending astronauts to Mars, but letting them stay comfy in an orbiting space station or a headquarters bolted to the side of Deimos while remotely driving machinery all over the planet, has allure. It’d be expensive, but not as expensive as rotating crews to and from the planet itself. Maybe in a thousand years, they will have terraformed the place so we can move in without looking like deep sea divers. Just like a sci fi plot, inverted. Creatures suddenly appear on a planet, act intelligent, nose all over the place, pursue complex routines and patterns of behavior, and take over the place. But they are but avatars for the real aliens in quiet orbit far above.

Charlie Petit