A new orbital moon station could take us to Mars and beyond. Here’s how

An artist's conception of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the Red Planet. Image: NASA/Getty.

The dream of a human habitat in orbit about the moon came a step closer on 27 September, when NASA and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) signed up to a common vision for future human exploration. The project, a follow-up to the International Space Station (ISS), involves a facility placed in orbit somewhere between the Earth and the moon – a region known as cis-lunar space. Seen as a stepping-stone on the way to deeper space exploration, it has been dubbed the Deep Space Gateway, DSG.

NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which is still in development, will enable the construction of DSG. It will be supplemented by Russia’s less-powerful Proton-M and Angara rockets. However, it is misleading to portray this as a purely Russia-US partnership, because the three other ISS partners (the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies) are highly likely to be involved too.

Since Apollo 17 came back from the moon in 1972, no human has ventured further from home than “low-Earth orbit”, an altitude of only 400km in the case of the ISS.

The International Space Station passing over part of the western Mediterranean in 2009. Image: NASA.

The ISS began construction in 1998 and has been continuously occupied by (usually) six crew since November, 2000. Previously planned to last until 2020, the project has been extended until 2024 and could be eked out longer. However it is ageing – and many would argue that it should have already been replaced. It has cost somewhere in the region of $150bn. That isn’t cheap, but, to put it into context, it works out as about the same as what humanity has frittered away on buying lipstick over the same 20-year period.

We can expect a comparable or larger price tag for the DSG, which is due to begin to be assembled in the mid-2020s, assuming that NASA can get its heavy-lift Space Launch System ready in time despite a precarious funding situation.

Orbits

The DSG derives its name because its position beyond the deepest part of Earth’s gravity well, the strongest part of the Earth’s gravity field, which means you need less energy to launch a mission from there. That makes it a great staging post for departure of human expeditions to the lunar surface and more distant destinations such as Mars. It could also act as a receiving facility for initial examination (and quarantine, for planetary protection purposes) of samples brought back from Mars or other bodies.

A NASA Orion craft brings a crew to the Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit (artist’s impression). Image: NASA.

Unlike the ISS, the DSG would not be continuously inhabited. Current plans call for one annual 42-day visit by a four-member crew, at first. When unoccupied, instruments on the DSG could continue to collect useful scientific data, especially when close to the moon. It won’t be placed into a low lunar orbit, but into special points in space such as where the gravitational attraction between the Earth and moon are balanced. This allows it to follow a “near rectilinear halo orbit” (see video below). From the moon’s point of view, the DSG would repeatedly sweep low over one pole, offering great opportunities for scientific measurements.

The ‘Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit’ and other animations.

At other times the DSG may sit further from the moon, in a halo orbit about a position on the moon-Earth line known as the L₂ Lagrange point. The balance of gravitational forces here makes it possible to “park” a spacecraft to make observations.

However, these orbits are only quasi-stable, so some adjustments would be necessary to maintain the DSG in these configurations without floating away elsewhere. The Canadian Space Agency has suggested the use of a solar sail to do most of the work, rather than using thruster fuel. I think that is a great idea, because solar sails, which get a push from radiation pressure, have not yet been trialled adequately to test their potential – so this is an opportunity to assess how to best work them. Apart from their use in manoeuvring around the solar system, solar sails may one day propel probes to the nearest stars.


The competition

The DSG is all still a very long way from reality. However it is a logical next step after the ISS – and any long-term multinational cooperative enterprise in space has to be a good thing, given the bickering between nations going on down here on Earth. It may not lead us very quickly to Mars though – government-funded projects are often cash-strapped, meaning the plans could lag behind private enterprise efforts such as Elon Musk and his super-heavy-lift Interplanetary Transport System, or BFR.

This is only Musk’s first step. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, he revealed his own ambitious plans for a lunar base followed by rockets to Mars by 2022.

The ConversationWhichever way it comes about, it would surely be inspiring to see astronauts travelling beyond low Earth orbit again. A refurbishable platform such as the DSG somewhere near the moon would offer many ways to study both the moon (personally I’d like to mount an X-ray spectrometer on the DSG to map the distribution of the chemical elements across the lunar surface) and the interaction between Earth and the sun.

David Rothery is professor of planetary geosciences at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.