A small spacecraft could pave the way for a station between the Earth and the Moon

The tiny satellite, called CubeSat, is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 25 kilograms, but it will be the first to test a unique, elliptical orbit around the moon. The CubeSat will act as a pathfinder for Gateway, a lunar orbiting outpost that will serve as a way station between Earth and the moon for astronauts.

Called an almost rectilinear halo orbit, the orbit is very elongated and provides stability for extended missions while requiring little energy to maintain – which is exactly what the Gateway needs. The orbit exists at a balanced point in the gravitational forces of the Moon and Earth.

The mission, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, and known as CAPSTONE, is expected to launch from the launch pad on Monday, June 27 at 05:50 ET. The CubeSat is launched aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

Once launched, CAPSTONE will reach its point in orbit within three months and then spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft can provide more data about the power and propulsion requirements for the Gateway.

The CubeSat’s orbit brings the spacecraft within 1,609.3 kilometers of one lunar pole to the nearest transit point and within 70,0006.5 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 will require less propulsion than more circular orbits.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test its communication capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the benefit of a clear view of Earth while providing cover for the moon’s south pole — where the first Artemis astronauts are expected to arrive in 2025. will land.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit, which has been orbiting the moon for 13 years, will provide a reference point for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft will communicate directly with each other, allowing teams on the ground to measure the distance between each spacecraft and their home at CAPSTONE’s exact 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 performs as expected, it can be used by future spacecraft without relying on tracking from Earth.

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

Small satellites on big missions

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

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

“So 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 chance of failure, but that we can accept that failure in order to transfer. steps to advanced capabilities,” said Baker. “In this case, failure is an option.”

Lessons from smaller CubeSat missions can inform larger missions later – and CubeSats are already heading for more challenging destinations than low Earth orbit.

When NASA’s InSight lander traveled to Mars for nearly seven months 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.

As InSight entered, descended and landed, the MarCO satellites received and transmitted communications from the lander to let NASA know that InSight was safe on the surface of the red planet. They were nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, after the robots from the 2008 Pixar film.

The fact that the tiny satellites reached Mars and flew through space behind InSight excited engineers. The CubeSats continued to fly past Mars after InSight landed, but fell silent towards the end of the year. But MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats can go along on bigger missions.

This small but mighty spacecraft will again play a supporting role in September, when the DART mission, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, will intentionally crash into the moon Dimorphos as it orbits asteroid Didymos to control the movement of the Earth’s planet. asteroid in space change .

The collision will be captured by LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian space agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat travels on DART, which launched in November 2021, and will deploy before impact so it can record what’s happening. Three minutes after the impact, the CubeSat flies past Dimorphos to capture photos and video. The video of the impact is streamed back to Earth.
The Artemis I mission will also transport three cereal-sized CubeSats that will hitch a ride into deep space. Separately, the tiny satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map lunar water deposits, perform a lunar flight and study particles and magnetic fields flowing from the sun.

More affordable missions

The CAPSTONE mission relies 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 fixed-price small business research contract — in less than three years and for less than $30 million.

Larger missions can cost billions of dollars. The Perseverance rover, which is 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.

The final megamoon rocket test results will determine the final launch day to the moon

These kinds of contracts could expand the possibilities for small, more affordable missions to the moon and other destinations while also creating a framework for commercial support for future lunar operations, Baker said.

Baker’s hopes are that small spacecraft missions can accelerate the pace of space exploration and scientific discovery — and CAPSTONE and other CubeSats are just the beginning.

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect launch date.

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