Microwave-sized spacecraft to test new orbit between Earth and Moon

The tiny satellite, called CubeSatIt’s about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but it will be the first to test a unique elliptical lunar orbit. The CubeSat will act as a Gateway rover, an orbiting lunar outpost that will serve as a way station between Earth and the Moon for astronauts.

The orbit, called a near-rectilinear halo orbit, is highly elongated and provides stability for long-term missions and requires little energy to maintain, which is exactly what Gateway will need. The orbit exists at a balanced point in the gravities of the moon and Earth.

The mission, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, and known as CAPSTONE, is scheduled to lift off from the launch pad on Monday, June 27 at 5:50 am ET. The CubeSat will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

Once CAPSTONE launches, it will reach point-of-orbit within three months and then spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft can provide more data on the power and propulsion requirements for the Gateway.

CubeSat’s orbit will bring the spacecraft within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 kilometers) of a lunar pole at its closest pass and within 43,500 miles (70,006.5 kilometers) of the other pole every seven days. Using this orbit will be more energy efficient for spacecraft flying to and from the Gateway, as it requires less propulsion than more circular orbits.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test communication capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the advantage of a clear view of Earth while also providing coverage for the lunar south pole, where the first Artemis astronauts land in 2025.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the moon for 13 years, will provide a reference point for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft will communicate directly with each other, allowing ground teams to measure the distance between each other and pinpoint CAPSTONE’s exact location.

The collaboration between the two spacecraft may test CAPSTONE’s autonomous navigation software, called CAPS, or the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System. If this software works as expected, it could be used by future spacecraft without relying on tracking from Earth.

“The CAPSTONE mission is a valuable precursor not only to the Gateway, but also to the Orion spacecraft and the Human Landing System,” said Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Office of Exploration Mission Planning at Johnson Space Center. In Houston. “Gateway and Orion will use the CAPSTONE data to validate our model, which will be important for future mission planning and operations.”

Small satellites on big missions

The CAPSTONE mission is a fast, low-cost demonstration intended to help lay the groundwork for future small spacecraft, said Christopher Baker, small spacecraft technology program executive in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. .

Small missions that can be quickly assembled and launched at lower cost mean they can take risks that larger, more expensive missions cannot.

“Very often in a flight test, you learn as much, if not more, from failure than from success. We can afford to take more risk, knowing that there is a probability of failure, but that we can accept that failure to move on to success.” advanced capabilities,” Baker said. “In this case, failure is an option.”

Lessons from smaller CubeSat missions may inform larger missions in the future, and CubeSats have already been headed for more challenging destinations than low-Earth orbit.

When NASA’s InSight lander was on its nearly seven-month journey to Mars in 2018, it wasn’t alone. Two suitcase-sized spacecraft, called MarCO, followed InSight on its journey. They were the first cube satellites to fly into deep space.

During InSight’s entry, descent, and landing, the MarCO satellites received and transmitted communications from the lander to let NASA know that InSight was safely on the surface of the Red Planet. They were nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after the robots in the 2008 Pixar film.

The fact that the tiny satellites reached Mars, flying behind InSight through space, excited engineers. CubeSats continued to fly past Mars after InSight’s landing, but went quiet by the end of the year. But MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats can accompany larger missions.

These tiny but mighty spacecraft will play a supporting role again in September, when the DART mission, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, deliberately crashes into the small moon Dimorphos while orbiting the near-Earth asteroid Didymos to change the movement of the asteroid in space. .

The collision will be recorded by LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for imaging asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat rides on DART, which launched in November 2021, and will be deployed before impact so it can record what happens. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat will fly over Dimorphos to capture images and video. Video of the impact will be transmitted to Earth.
the The Artemis I mission will also carry three CubeSats the size of cereal boxes. they are hitchhiking on a journey into deep space. Separately, the small satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map lunar water reservoirs, conduct a lunar flyby, and study particles and magnetic fields emanating from the sun.

More affordable missions

The CAPSTONE mission builds on NASA’s partnership with commercial companies including Rocket Lab, Stellar Exploration, Terran Orbital Corporation, and Advanced Space. The lunar mission was built using a fixed-price, small-business innovative research contract, in less than three years and for less than $30 million.

The largest missions can cost billions of dollars. The Perseverance rover, currently exploring Mars, cost more than $2 billion and the Artemis I mission is estimated to cost $4.1 billion, according to an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.

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These types of contracts can expand opportunities for smaller, more affordable missions to the moon and beyond, while creating a framework for commercial support of future lunar operations, Baker said.

Baker’s hope is that small spacecraft missions can increase the pace of space exploration and scientific discovery, and CAPSTONE and other CubeSats are just the beginning.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect release date.

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