NASA scientists and engineers are eyeing the construction of a manned outpost that would hover in orbit above the far side of the moon.
Tentatively dubbed the "gateway spacecraft," the outpost would support a small astronaut crew and function as a staging area for future missions to the moon and Mars.
As Mark K. Matthews of the Orlando Sentinelnotes, the gateway spacecraft - orbiting at 277,000 miles from Earth - would be far more remote than the current International Space Station (ISS) located 200 miles above Earth.
"The [new outpost would be located in] Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2, a spot about 38,000 miles from the moon and 277,000 miles from Earth," Matthews explained. "At that location, the combined gravities of the Earth and moon reach equilibrium, making it possible to 'stick' an outpost there with minimal power required to keep it in place."
Potential missions for the gateway spacecraft include the study of nearby asteroids and dispatching robotic drones to the moon which would be tasked with collecting moon rocks. Of course, the outpost would also be used to plan future trips to Mars and its moons, which are located approximately 140 million miles away.
However, it remains unclear if the gateway spacecraft will ever be approved, as the missions faces two major hurdles. The first is astronaut safety, as it will take days to navigate to the outpost. This will make it somewhat difficult for NASA to address the dangers of deep space for astronauts, especially when it comes to radiation. Indeed, the outpost would be more vulnerable to space radiation as the gateway is planned far beyond the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field.
The second issue is cost, which would almost certainly run into billions of dollars. It remains unclear if the White House supports NASA's latest proposal, but the space agency seems to be keeping its options open if the far side station fails to win approval from the Obama administration.
"There are many options — and many routes — being discussed on our way to the Red Planet... In addition to the moon and an asteroid, other options may be considered as we look for ways to buy down risk — and make it easier — to get to Mars," said NASA spokesman David Weaver.