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Europe shoots for the moon with role in NASA programme

German astronaut Alexander Gerst poses in front of the Orion European Service Module 4 (ESM-4) in an assembly hall during the Moon Media Day at the Airbus Defence and Space plant in Bremen, Germany, on February 9, 2023. – Airbus Defence and Space Bremen integrates three ESM for the Artemis Moon mission program of the NASA in collaboration with the European Space Agency (esa). (Photo by FOCKE STRANGMANN / AFP)

European astronauts could walk on the Moon for the first time in the coming years, in exchange for the continent taking on a key role in an ambitious NASA space programme.

The US space agency’s Artemis programme aims to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the historic Apollo missions, which ended in 1972.

For the first time, the European Space Agency (ESA) and European aerospace giant Airbus have been entrusted with supplying vital “service modules” (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

In exchange, Europe has three guaranteed seats on the mission’s flights, probably from 2027, although discussions are ongoing to try to get earlier spots.

The role of the Europeans is vital — they are providing “half of the spacecraft that will take people to the Moon and, of course, back to Earth safely,” said Marc Steckling, Airbus’s head of space exploration.

The modules are critical to power the spacecraft, providing electricity from solar panels, and other vital supplies such as water and oxygen.

Cylinders measuring about four by four metres with about 22,000 parts and weighing about 12 tons, the modules are put together at Airbus’s site in Bremen, northern Germany.

Once assembled and safety tests are completed, they are transferred to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The ESMs can also provide manoeuvring capability, and could even carry additional cargo to a planned space station in orbit around the Moon, called Gateway.

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