Deep Space Gateway: Updated 'Roadmap' Details Jump-Off Station For Asteroids, Mars Missions

An international organization of space exploration agencies have plans to place a "gateway" orbital platform in low Earth orbit to act as a waystation for future missions to the Moon, targeted asteroids, and Mars. In an updated planning document called the Global Exploration Roadmap, the organization is hopeful that what is being referred to as the Deep Space Gateway -- developed by NASA -- will be up and operational sometime in the 2020s, with the more distant missions getting launched within the next two decades.

Space News reported this week that the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), an organization of 15 space agencies (including NASA), has updated its Global Exploration Roadmap, a plan that displays the common goals of the disparate space agencies with regard to near-space and deep space exploration. The latest plan, an amended document enhancing the organization's 2013 Roadmap that will be published in January, highlights initiatives for human exploratory missions to the Moon and Mars. It also places an emphasis on an extended presence in low Earth orbit, such as the continued operation of the International Space Station (ISS), and a cislunar habitat, the aforementioned Deep Space Gateway.

With NASA set to deploy its heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) with an Orion capsule in late 2019, Kathy Laurini, NASA senior adviser for exploration and space operations, stated at the Global Exploration Roadmap community workshop at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on November 29 that it was necessary to decide for what such vehicles would ultimately be used. "We've been engaged with our international partners on how we'll use these to explore together," she added.

Members of the ISECG, which Laurini chairs, plan to use the Roadmap to push space exploration agendas in their own respective nations. Membership in the organization is voluntary and its suggestions and plans are considered non-binding. Still, members intend to show policymakers and funding agencies how specific programs will contribute to global endeavors, Space News reported Laurini as saying.

The Deep Space Gateway itself is a NASA concept. John Guidi, NASA advanced exploration systems deputy director, describes the space station as an "orbital platform" that could be used as a jump-off base for ferried astronauts, to explore near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

"Cislunar orbit is the sweet spot. It's close enough to Earth and the moon but out of the gravity wells."
space station with spacecraft docking

Plans for the Deep Space Gateway include three phases. Phase 0 entails current and ongoing research and testing on the ISS. Phase 1 is set to initiate in the 2020s, whereby international space agencies would explore in the vicinity of the Moon and where NASA would work on constructing the Deep Space Gateway, a manned outpost with only 10 percent of the habitable volume of ISS. In addition to the construction and completion of the Gateway, various space agencies would send robotic missions to the surface of the Moon and prepare for further human lunar exploration. This will be followed by Phase 2 in the 2030s, where those agencies would launch designed exploration missions to orbit faraway Mars.

That is the plan, the Roadmap. However, future programs like the Deep Space Gateway -- not to mention the much more close-dated launch of the SLS and Orion programs -- are highly dependent on the authorization and funding by the U.S. Congress. As is now the case, ongoing space exploration projects and planned future programs await the enactment of a new budget, which has yet to be passed into law.

But the ISECG goals are not the only plans for expanding humanity's presence in space. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced in June his long-term plans for getting to and colonizing Mars. And back in May, astronaut Buzz Aldrin revealed his vision for a series of cislunar space stations that would form a circuit for moving men and materiel between stations, the Moon (complete with a Moon Base), and, eventually, Mars.