NASA's mission to return to the moon and create an orbital gateway for deep space exploration is about to take one big step forward. The agency has announced that contracts for the first components of the upcoming Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a small space station capable of hosting crews for up to 30 days, will be awarded early in 2019.

Unlike the International Space Station, which resides in low-Earth orbit, the Gateway will travel along what's called a "Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO)," making close passes by the moon, but also looping far enough into space to remain in contact with NASA and receive maximum sunlight exposure for solar energy generation.

"A Gateway in the vicinity of the moon has been the goal of scientists and designers of space exploration scenarios for almost two decades," Harley Thronson, a senior technologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Space.com.

You can see Boeing's concept for the Gateway station in the video below.

In early 2019, NASA will award the first contract for the creation of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway's (LOP-G) 40kW power and propulsion elements. This will be followed by development of the station's habitation, logistics and airlock modules. Should all proceed according to plan, the power and propulsion piece will be placed into cislunar space sometime in 2022. Within three years, the complete platform should be ready to begin hosting four-person crews.

In a move reflecting the present diversity of space interests, the Gateway will be developed, serviced and utilized in collaboration with both commercial and international partners.

"It’s got fiscal realism, and it’s also adaptable," NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier told Bloomberg. "It can adapt to commercial partners. It’s not a rigid program of one mission following another."

An illustration of Phase 1 of NASA's mission to develop an orbiting lunar outpost. The first major component of the new station is expected to launch in 2022. An illustration of Phase 1 of NASA's mission to develop an orbiting lunar outpost. The first major component of the new station is expected to launch in 2022. (Photo: NASA)

Once complete, the Gateway is expected to provide invaluable insight on the lunar surface, support possible manned trips to the moon, and serve as a gateway for deep space crewed missions to planets like Mars. NASA is also exploring the idea of harvesting deposits of water ice on the moon's surface to manufacture propellant for deep space spacecraft.

“If we’re ever to go to Mars, we have to learn how to operate far from the Earth," Dr. Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NBC News in January. "We need that operational experience. And I think that is the motivation for the Deep Space Gateway — to gain operational experience away from the comfort zone of low-Earth orbit.”

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.