Meet SpaceX’s upgraded Dragon: the XL
In spite of the worsening coronavirus pandemic in the US, NASA is still looking onward to its long-term goal of directing humans back to the lunar surface and is now requesting SpaceX to start doing cargo runs to the Moon in the coming future. NASA granted the aerospace company with a new agreement this afternoon, entrusting SpaceX with sending supplies and cargo to a space station that NASA wishes to make in the Moon’s orbit.
The new collaboration is a big piece of NASA’s Artemis program, a plan to land the first woman on the moon surface by 2024. As part of the program, NASA has offered building a space station in orbit around the Moon known as the Gateway, where astronauts can work and train before going down to the lunar soil. Just like the ISS, the Gateway is going to require supplies and science experiments now and again, and now SpaceX is the first company entrusted with making that happen.
TO GET SUPPLIES TO THE UPCOMING GATEWAY, SPACEX IS GOING TO USE SOME UPGRADED VEHICLES
SpaceX has been providing cargo to the International Space Station for almost ten years now, packing supplies in the company’s Dragon capsule and introducing them on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. To deliver supplies to the future Gateway, SpaceX is going to use some advanced vehicles. The company is making a new cargo vehicle known as the Dragon XL, a cylinder-shaped white spacecraft that can “transport more than 5 metric tons of cargo to Gateway in lunar orbit,” according to SpaceX. The huge sized Dragon will launch on top of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the much more potent variant of the Falcon 9 that comprises of three rocket cores fastened together.
Thanks to a fixed-price contract, SpaceX is in control to send numerous supply missions to the Gateway once the station is starting and running. In each trip, the Dragon XL will stay tied up to the Gateway for six to 12 months a time. The capsule will transport things like “sample collection materials and other articles the crew may need on the Gateway and through their expeditions on the lunar surface,” as mentioned by NASA.
“Returning to the Moon and backing future space exploration needs affordable delivery of substantial amounts of cargo,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO and president, said in an announcement. “Through our collaboration with NASA, SpaceX has been providing scientific research and important supplies to the ISS since 2012, and we are pleased to continue the work beyond Earth’s orbit and move Artemis cargo to Gateway.”
“WE ARE PLEASED TO CONTINUE THE WORK BEYOND EARTH’S ORBIT.”
SpaceX possibly won’t be the only company entrusted with sending supplies to the Gateway. Eventually, NASA has the choice to add multiple cargo suppliers and has allocated up to $7 billion to devote on cargo contracts for Artemis. Each contract pledges that NASA will order at least two cargo missions per provider and NASA can demand missions for up to 12 years.
While the contract is a huge step for NASA and SpaceX, a lot of questions linger about the future of the Artemis program. For one, it’s uncertain when the Gateway will really be built. For the past few years, NASA officials have argued that building the Gateway is a vital part of the Artemis program as it will aid the space agency launch a sustainable presence around the Moon, instead of just sending astronauts to the lunar surface to leave “footprints and flags.” But the administration dared NASA to land its first Artemis astronauts by 2024, and with that deadline quickly impending, the space agency may not have sufficient time to build the Gateway if it wants to get humans to the Moon again in the coming four years. In fact, NASA’s newly selected associate administrator for human exploration said that the Gateway is no longer important for getting humans back to the Moon by 2024, according to Space News. That doesn’t mean it won’t get constructed, but it may not happen till after the first lunar landing time limit.
In the meantime, it’s becoming increasingly doubtful that NASA will be able to meet its 2024 deadline at all, as the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the agency to suspend production on some important programs. Particularly, NASA closed development of its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, which the agency intends to use to fly the first Artemis astronauts to the Moon.
As for SpaceX, the company is still functioning during the pandemic as the company has been considered mission essential by the state of California, because of its work with the Department of Defense. So it’s possible the company could still get a jump-start on the progress of this new capsule. But it’s uncertain when the Gateway will be ready to get its first shipment.