Astronaut Telescope Servicing at Earth-Sun L2 (1999)

Interplanetary space showing the positions of the Sun, Earth, Earth's orbit about the Sun, the Moon, the Moon's orbit about the Earth, and the five Earth-Sun Libration Points. Image credit: NASA.
The Earth-Moon and Sun-Earth Libration (L) points are not places in the sense that one can land on them and pick up rocks. Because of this, some space exploration planners perceive them to be unsatisfying destinations. The L points have, however, long been proposed as space transportation way stations and as radio relay and scientific instrument sites.

In 1999, the Decadal Planning Team (DPT), a secretive NASA-wide study group chartered by President William Clinton's Office of Management and Budget, identified astronomical observatories in "halo orbits" around the Sun-Earth L points as a key NASA goal for the early 21st century. These large and complex instruments would, among other tasks, seek to observe Earth-like worlds around other stars.

The NASA Exploration Team (NExT), the DPT's immediate successor, subsequently sought to incorporate the Sun-Earth L point emphasis into its piloted spaceflight planning. In a 20 December 1999 presentation to the NeXT, for example, NASA Johnson Space Center exploration planner Bret Drake examined ways that the Sun-Earth L points might aid future piloted Mars missions.

An automated solar observatory orbiting the Sun-Earth L1 point, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, could provide Mars crews with early warning of solar flares, Drake explained. Radio relays in halo orbit about Sun-Earth L4, 60° ahead of the Earth along its Sun-centered orbit, and Sun-Earth L5, 60° behind the Earth along its orbit, could enable continuous radio communication between Earth and crews exploring Mars during superior conjunctions, when the Sun blocks line-of-sight radio contact between the two planets.

Drake hastened to add that the Sun-Earth L points would not be good staging places for piloted Mars missions. He explained that the trip to and from a Sun-Earth L point would add almost two months to the typical duration of a roundtrip Mars voyage that started from low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Piloted missions to Sun-Earth L points might, however, serve as experience-building intermediate steps between piloted LEO missions and piloted Mars missions. Drake suggested that L point missions could enable astronauts to experience interplanetary conditions (for example, solar radiation undiminished by Earth's magnetic field), yet would have one-way trip times as short as 25 days.

Drake proposed that NASA astronauts carry out a 100-day telescope-servicing mission to Sun-Earth L2, 1.5 million miles from Earth. The mission would employ Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP) technologies and techniques first proposed in 1998 for NASA's Mars Design Reference Mission.

The mission would begin with the unmanned launch to LEO of a 32,975-kilogram telescope-servicing spacecraft comprising a 14,450-kilogram inflatable "mini-Transhab" crew module, a 4271-kilogram Apollo Command Module-shaped Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), and a 14,164-kilogram two-stage Chemical Propulsion Module. The spacecraft would reach LEO within the streamlined shroud of a next-generation expendable rocket called an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-Heavy (EELV-H).

A Space Shuttle Orbiter would rendezvous with the telescope-servicing spacecraft in LEO so that astronauts could oversee inflation of the doughnut-shaped single-deck mini-Transhab and deployment of its twin electricity-generating solar arrays. They would install equipment and furnishings in the mini-Transhab and stock it with supplies, then would return to Earth.

A second EELV-H would place a 33,000-kilogram automated Solar-Electric Propulsion (SEP) Vehicle into LEO, where it would automatically deploy solar-array wings and dock with the telescope-servicing spacecraft. Over the next seven months, the SEP Vehicle would operate its electric-propulsion thrusters at perigee (the low point in its orbit about the Earth) to raise its apogee (the high point in its orbit).

The result of these SEP Boost Phase maneuvers would be a highly elliptical orbit loosely bound to the Earth. The SEP Vehicle would then detach from the telescope-servicing spacecraft and operate its thrusters at apogee to return to LEO for refurbishment and reuse.

Use of the SEP Vehicle to place the telescope-servicing spacecraft into a highly elliptical Earth orbit would dramatically reduce the quantity of chemical propellants required to leave LEO for Earth-Sun L2. SEP thrusters produce little thrust but can do so over long periods and expend little propellant. This approach would greatly reduce overall mission mass and the number of EELV-H and Shuttle Orbiter flights required to place the telescope-servicing spacecraft into LEO.

The telescope-servicing spacecraft would carry no crew during the SEP Boost Phase because it would pass through Earth's radiation belts repeatedly. Over time, this would subject the crew to an unacceptably high cumulative radiation dose.

Drake inserted into his telescope-servicing mission assembly-and-launch sequence an optional piloted mission that would fly only if the telescope-servicing spacecraft needed repairs following the SEP Boost Phase. A Shuttle Orbiter would deliver to LEO a maintenance crew, a small lifting-body Crew Taxi, and a chemical-propulsion rocket stage. The stage would rapidly boost the Taxi into a highly elliptical Earth orbit matching that of the telescope-servicing spacecraft.

The maintenance crew would rendezvous and dock with the telescope-servicing spacecraft. After completing the needed repairs, they would undock, fire the Crew Taxi's rocket motors at apogee to lower its perigee into Earth's atmosphere, perform reentry, and glide to a landing.

If, however, flight controllers on Earth determined that the telescope-servicing spacecraft in highly elliptical Earth orbit was healthy and that no repairs were needed, the Crew Taxi would deliver a four-person crew to the telescope-servicing spacecraft. After casting off the Taxi, they would ignite the telescope-servicing spacecraft's first chemical-propulsion stage at perigee to escape their loosely bound highly elliptical orbit and begin the 25-day voyage to Sun-Earth L2. They would then cast off the spent stage.

In the Sun-Earth L2 Operations Phase, the telescope-servicing spacecraft would enter a "halo parking orbit" centered on Sun-Earth L2. For 50 days the astronauts would service large next-generation telescopes in halo orbits around Sun-Earth L2, much as Space Shuttle crews in 1993, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2009 serviced the Hubble Space Telescope in LEO. Drake suggested that during their down time between servicing calls they might conduct unspecified scientific research.

Their mission completed, the astronauts would ignite the second stage of the telescope-servicing spacecraft's Chemical Propulsion Module to begin return to Earth. About 25 days later, they would strap into the ERV capsule, undock from their home of the previous 100 days, reenter Earth's atmosphere, and parachute to a landing. The other components of the telescope-servicing spacecraft would burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Even as Drake presented his Earth-Sun L2 servicing mission concept, NASA engineers conceived of a Gateway space station in halo orbit about Earth-Moon L1 as a base for observatory servicing and as a stepping stone to points all over the lunar surface. They envisioned that observatories needing servicing would ignite small thrusters to begin a slow transfer from their Earth-Sun L1 and L2 halo orbits to the vicinity of the Gateway. Once at Earth-Moon L1, they would be serviced by spacewalking astronauts, "cherry picker" booms, and teleoperated systems.

Flying formation with teleoperated systems, an advanced space telescope arrives in the vicinity of the Earth-Moon L1 Gateway. The twin red spheres carry imagers that supply information on the telescope to astronauts inside the Gateway. As they escort the telescope, a boxy teleoperated robot with several jointed appendages moves into the shadow cast by its multi-layer sunshield. Partially silhouetted against the Moon, the Gateway includes six solar arrays, a doughnut-shaped pressurized mini-Transhab habitat module, multiple docking ports, servicing equipment, and three rocket stages for unspecified missions. Please click on the image to enlarge. Image credit: NASA.
Cislunar space showing the positions of Earth, the Moon, the Moon's orbit about Earth, and the five Earth-Moon Libration Points. Image credit: NASA.
In January 2004, in the aftermath of the STS-107 Columbia Space Shuttle accident (1 February 2003) and at the start of the 2004 election cycle, President George W. Bush called for a new NASA program to take humans to the Moon and Mars. At first, the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), as it became known, incorporated many elements of DPT/NExT.

Soon after Michael Griffin became NASA Administrator on 13 April 2005, however, the VSE veered away from DPT/NExT and toward the Constellation Program, which Griffin called "Apollo on steroids." Bush showed little interest in the VSE after he announced it, so did not intervene to keep his program on track.

Constellation and the VSE were mostly abandoned in 2009-2010 under President Barack Obama. The global economy was in crisis following the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008 and the near-collapse of the global financial system. Spaceflight, rarely a high priority, took a distant back seat to repairing the U.S. economy.

When Obama unveiled a new space plan in 2010, it resembled DPT/NExT more than Constellation. The Bush Administration's decision to cancel the Space Shuttle led to the most significant deviation from the DPT/NExT architecture: retention of Constellation's large rocket under the name Space Launch System. Resembling an oversized EELV-H, SLS replaced the Shuttle Orbiter and the solar-electric tug of the DPT/NExT plan. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) replaced the lifting-body taxi.

Meanwhile, China launched a program to explore the Moon using robots. Chang'e 1 orbited the Moon in 2007-2009; Chang'e 2 orbited the Moon in 2010-2012 before leaving lunar orbit for a flyby of the Near-Earth Asteroid 4179 Toutatis; and Chang'e 3 landed on the Moon in late 2013.

Chang'e 4, targeted for the lunar farside hemisphere, landed successfully in January 2019. It transmits radio signals to Earth via the Queqiao satellite, which reached a halo orbit around Earth-Moon L2 in June 2018. In addition to relaying signals from Chang'e 4 and its rover to Earth, Queqiao also serves as a radio observatory remote from the radio noise of Earth.

A radio-relay satellite in Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit enables communication with spacecraft out of line-of-sight radio contact on the hidden farside hemisphere of the Moon. Image credit: NASA.
Sources

"Future Missions for Libration-point Satellites," R. Farquhar, Astronautics & Aeronautics, May 1969, pp. 52-56.

"Strategic Considerations for Cislunar Space Infrastructure," IAF-93-Q.5.416, W. Mendell and S. Hoffman; paper presented at the 44th Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, 16-22 October 1993.

"Representative Human Missions to the Sun-Earth Libration Point (L2) '100' Day Class Mission," SEL2 Ver. R, Bret G. Drake, NASA Johnson Space Center, presentation materials, 20 December 1999.

"'Invisible Planets' Gain Favor as Real Estate in Space," L. David, Space.com, 19 January 2000.

More Information

Solar Flares and Moondust: The 1962 Proposal for an Interdisciplinary Science Satellite at Earth-Moon L4

Lunar GAS (1987)

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