The historic journey of a small NASA spacecraft to the moon is over.
The 55-pound (25-kilogram) CAPSTONE probe slipped into orbit around the Moon on Sunday evening (November 13), becoming the first cubesat to visit Earth’s closest neighbor.
The milestone came after a successful engine burn that ended at 7:39 p.m. EST (0039 GMT Nov. 14), NASA officials said in a brief update. (opens in a new tab).
Related: Why it took NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe so long to reach the moon
#CAPSTONE is at the #Moon! Initial data indicates that the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) insertion was executed as planned. This week, 2 cleaning maneuvers will ensure that the spacecraft has been precisely inserted into orbit. Congratulations, CAPSTONE Mission Team! #innovation2orbit pic.twitter.com/5uBwwSsZdyNovember 14, 2022
The maneuver placed CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) in a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon, a highly elliptical trajectory that will also be occupied by the Gateway space station of the Nasa.
NASA plans to launch the first elements of Gateway, a crucial part of its Artemis lunar exploration program, in 2024. But the agency wants to learn more about lunar NRHOs first, and that’s where it comes in. CAPSTONE: The microwave-sized spacecraft will test the presumed stability of this orbit, which a spacecraft has never flown before, on a mission scheduled to last at least six months.
CAPSTONE will also perform communications and navigation tests, including some in concert with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has orbited the moon since 2009.
However, CAPSTONE is not yet ready to get to work; it still needs to refine its trajectory around the moon.
“Two smaller corrective maneuvers will take place this week to ensure the spacecraft is confirmed in complex lunar orbit,” wrote representatives of Colorado-based company Advanced Space, which owns CAPSTONE and operates the cubesat for the NASA, in a Sunday evening update. (opens in a new tab).
CAPSTONE’s path to lunar orbit was a bit bumpy. The probe was launched atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster on June 28, kicking off a 4.5-month, highly fuel-efficient trek that followed gravitational contours.
The CAPSTONE team lost contact with the probe on July 4, just after it separated from Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus. They quickly identified and fixed the problem, a badly formatted command, getting CAPSTONE back on track the next day.
CAPSTONE encountered more problems two months later. The probe suffered a problem during a course correction motor burn on 8 September; it started falling and went into safe protection mode.
The mission team traced this problem to a wobbly valve in CAPSTONE’s propulsion system, fixed it, and got the probe back on track for its historic lunar arrival.
Other cubesats will soon follow in CAPSTONE’s footsteps, if all goes as planned. NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission is set to launch Nov. 16, sending the agency’s Orion capsule on an uncrewed cruise into lunar orbit. Artemis 1 will also feature 10 ride-on cubesats, some of which will study the moon.
One of these small craft, Japan’s OMOTENASHI (“Outstanding Lunar Exploration Technologies Demonstrated by Semi-Hard Nano Impactor”), will even drop a tiny lander on the moon.
Although CAPSTONE is a lunar pioneer, it is not the first cubesat to go beyond Earth orbit. That accolade goes to NASA’s MarCO-A and MarCO-B probes, also known as Wall-E and Eva, which launched with the agency’s InSight Mars lander in May 2018. Both cubesats have helped transmit data home when InSight landed on the Red Planet six months later. and also managed to photograph Mars.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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