The Capstone Launch Will Kick Off NASA’s Artemis Moon Program

A probe the size of a toaster He will soon explore a special orbit around the Moon, the path planned for NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station. The Gateway, which will be launched later this decade, will be a staging point for astronauts and the team that will travel as part of NASA’s Artemis lunar program. The launch of this small but powerful research probe will inaugurate the Artemis mission, finally launching the space agency’s ambitious lunar projects.

The small spacecraft is called Capstone, or, more officially, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Operations and Technological Navigation Experiment. It will be placed on top of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket scheduled for the explosion on June 27 from the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand at 21:50 local time (5:50 am EDT). If you can’t pitch that day, you’ll have other opportunities between then and July 27th. The launch operators had planned the takeoff for earlier this month, but decided to postpone it while updating the flight software.

“We are very excited. It will be basically the first CubeSat launched and deployed to the Moon, “says Elwood Agasid, director of the Capstone program and deputy director of NASA’s small satellite technology program at the Ames Research Center.” Capstone will serve as to searcher to better understand the specific orbit gate where it will fly and what are the fuel and control requirements to keep the orbit around the moon. “

CubeSats packs a lot in small spaces, usually at a lower cost than larger satellites. The “cube” refers to a single standard unit, which is about 4 inches on each side. Many CubeSats have a 3U format, with a trio coming together to form a bread-sized configuration. Capstone is a 12U spacecraft, or four of these combined. Everything is designed to fit in this compact box, including a lithium-ion battery and avionics systems, with the electronics and microcontrollers in charge of propulsion, navigation and data handling. Horizontal solar panels extend from both sides of the box, like wings.

Although many spacecraft have orbited the Moon, Capstone’s technological demonstrations will make it unique. In particular, it includes a positioning system that allows NASA and its business partners to determine the precise location of the spacecraft while in lunar orbit. “On Earth, people take it for granted that GPS provides this information,” Bradley Cheetham, CEO of Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado, and principal investigator at Capstone, said at a virtual press conference in May. But GPS does not extend to the upper orbits of the Earth, let alone to the Moon. Beyond Earth orbit, researchers still rely on Earth systems to track spacecraft through the Deep Space Network, an international giant antenna system managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Instead, Capstone will provide a spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation system, taking advantage of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that is already there. The pair will communicate with each other and measure the distance between them and each of their positions, regardless of terrestrial systems, Cheetham said.

Capstone will cross to the moon on a circular route called ballistic lunar transfer, which spends little energy but takes three months to travel. (Astronauts will travel in a more direct trajectory for only a few days.) Capstone will then rise into an almost oval-shaped halo orbit, or NRHO, that revolves around the Moon along a week, separated from it by 43,500 miles at its farthest point. This path has the advantage of balancing the gravitational pull of the Earth, moon and sun, thus limiting fuel use, which will be important for the Gateway station.

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