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

The small satellite, named A Cubesat, about the size of a microwave oven and weighing just 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but it will be the first to test a unique orbit around the moon. The CubeSat will act as a guide for Gateway, a lunar outpost that will act as a way station between Earth and the Moon for astronauts.

The orbit, called the corona’s proximal recti orbit, is very elongated and provides stability for long-range missions while requiring little energy to maintain – which is exactly what the Gateway will need. The orbit is located at a balanced point in the gravitational pull of the Moon and the Earth.

The mission, called Cislunar Autonomous GPS Technology Operations and Navigation Experience, known as CAPSTONE, lifted off from the launch pad Tuesday at 5:55 a.m. ET. The CubeSat was launched on a Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

It will reach its orbit point in three months and then spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft could provide more data on the power and thrust requirements for the gate.

The CubeSat orbit will bring the spacecraft to within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 km) of one lunar pole in its closest corridor and within 43,500 miles (70.006.5 km) of the other pole every seven days. Using this orbit would be more energy efficient for spacecraft flying in and out of the gate because it requires less thrust than more circular orbits.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test Earth communication capabilities from this orbit, which features a clear view of Earth while providing coverage of the Moon’s south pole – where the first Artemis astronauts are expected to land in 2025.

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NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the Moon for 13 years, will provide a point of reference for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft will communicate directly with each other, allowing teams on Earth to measure the exact distance between each and home at the CAPSTONE location.

The collaboration between the two spacecraft could 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 introduction not only to Gateway, but also to the Orion spacecraft and human landing system,” said Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Gateway and Orion will use data from CAPSTONE to validate our model, which will be critical to operations and future mission planning.”

Small satellites for big missions

The CAPSTONE mission is a fast, low-cost demonstration with the goal of helping lay the foundation for future small spacecraft, said Christopher Baker, Small Spacecraft Technology Program Manager for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Small missions that can be quickly assembled and launched at a lower cost mean they can seize opportunities that larger, more expensive missions simply cannot.

“Often in flight testing, you learn from failure, if not more, than you learn from success. We can take more risk, knowing there is potential for failure, but we can accept that failure in order to move to advanced capabilities.” “In this case, failure is an option.”

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Lessons learned from smaller CubeSat missions could benefit larger missions in the future — and CubeSats have already begun to identify more challenging destinations from low Earth orbit.

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

During InSight’s entry, landing and landing, MarCO satellites received and transported from the probe to let NASA know that InSight was safely on the surface of the Red Planet. They are named EVE and WALL-E for the robots from the 2008 Pixar movie.

The fact that small satellites made it to Mars, and flew behind InSight through space, got engineers excited. Cube satellites continued to fly past Mars after Insight landed, but fell silent by the end of the year. But the MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats could do bigger missions.

These small but powerful spacecraft will play a supporting role again in September, when the DART mission, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, will intentionally collide with Demorphos as it orbits near-Earth asteroid Didymos to alter the asteroid’s motion in space.

The collision will be recorded by LICIACube, or Italian light cube for asteroid imaging, which is the accompanying cubic satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The CubeSat travels the size of a briefcase on DART, which launched in November 2021, and will be published from it before impact so it can record what’s happening. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat will be flown by Dimorphos to capture photos and videos. The video of the collision will be broadcast back to Earth.
The The Artemis I mission will also carry three CubeSats the size of a cereal box that interrupts a journey into deep space. Separately, small satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map water deposits on the moon, conduct flybys of the moon, and study particles and magnetic fields flowing from the sun.

More affordable tasks

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

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Large missions can cost billions of dollars. The Persevering rover, which is currently exploring Mars, has a cost of more than $2 billion and the Artemis I mission is $4.1 billion, according to a review by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.

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These types of contracts could increase the chances of small, affordable missions to the Moon and other destinations while creating a framework for commercial support for future lunar operations, Baker said.

Baker hopes that small spacecraft missions will increase the pace of space exploration and scientific discovery – and CAPSTONE and other CubeSats are only the beginning.

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