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After Russia’s exit from the Lunar Gateway, NASA has found a new partner in UAE

An artist's concept of the Lunar Gateway that includes elements from international partners.
Enlarge / An artist’s concept of the Lunar Gateway that includes elements from international partners.

NASA/Alberto Bertolin

Relations between NASA and Russia’s state-owned space corporation were fairly robust five years ago when the two parties signed a joint statement that discussed partnering on the development of a space station orbiting the Moon, called the Lunar Gateway. At the time, Russia’s Roscosmos was expected to provide an airlock for the facility.

Much has happened in the five years since then, of course. In 2020, as NASA began to more concretely formulate its plans for lunar exploration under the Artemis program, Russia started to pull away.

“In our view, the Lunar Gateway in its current form is too US-centric, so to speak,” said then-Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin. “Russia is likely to refrain from participating in it on a large scale.” At the time, Rogozin also expressed disdain for the “Artemis Accords” created by NASA, which established a set of principles to guide cooperation among nations participating in the agency’s 21st-century lunar exploration plans.

By the time Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the country had already pivoted toward working with China on an “International Lunar Research Station.” This is a parallel effort to NASA’s Artemis program, which invites countries to join China and Russia to cooperate on exploration of the Moon.

While Russia was drifting away from NASA, nearly two dozen countries have signed multilateral agreements to join NASA’s Artemis Accords. One of the founding member nations, the United Arab Emirates, is looking to take its participation further. On Tuesday, The National reported that the UAE is in discussions with NASA to provide an airlock for the Lunar Gateway. The small Middle Eastern nation has been working with Boeing on designs.

Separately, a source confirmed to Ars that the UAE has been talking to NASA for about a year to provide an airlock for the Gateway. The first elements of this small station, which will fly in a halo orbit around the Moon, are likely to launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024 or 2025. Humans will not live on the Gateway continuously, as with the International Space Station, but rather inhabit it periodically. An airlock would facilitate spacewalks.

The Islamic nation, which is smaller in area than the US state of Maine, has a population of just about 9 million people. However, it has expressed an outsize interest in space exploration. In June 2020, through a partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, the UAE’s space program sent the “Hope” probe to Mars to study the red planet’s atmosphere. UAE officials said the goal of this program was to inspire its younger generation to go into science, technology, engineering, and medicine. At the time, only Russia, the United States, the European Union, and India had successfully put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars.

Last weekend, the UAE participated in its first lunar launch. Its small Rashid lunar rover was a passenger on board the Hakuto-R lander, which was commercially developed by the Japanese company ispace. That mission successfully launched on a Falcon 9 rocket and is expected to land on the Moon early next year.

The country also has a small astronaut corps. In 2019, Hazza Al Mansouri flew to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket for eight days as a visiting astronaut. Next February, Sultan Al Neyadi is scheduled to join the Crew-6 mission, where he will spend about six months on board the space station. His seat was brokered by Axiom Space. Other UAE astronauts are training in Houston for future space missions.

Through its partnership in the Artemis Accords, UAE is positioning itself to send an astronaut to the Lunar Gateway later this decade—and perhaps to the Moon’s surface in the 2030s.

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