The first cubesat to fly and operate on the Moon has successfully arrived

The first cubesat to fly and operate on the Moon has successfully arrived

The CAPSTONE payload is seen here, atop an Electron rocket in New Zealand.
Enlarge / The CAPSTONE payload is seen here, atop an Electron rocket in New Zealand.

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After a nearly five-month journey, far beyond the Moon and back, the small CAPSTONE spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit.

“We have received confirmation that CAPSTONE has arrived in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, and this is a huge step forward for the agency,” NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Chief, NASA, said Sunday evening. Jim Free. “It just completed its first insertion burn a few minutes ago. And over the next few days they will continue to refine its orbit and will be the first cubesat to fly and operate on the Moon.”

This is an important orbit for NASA, and special because it is truly stable, requiring only a tiny amount of propellant to maintain its position. At its closest point to the Moon, this roughly week-long orbit passes within 3,000 km of the lunar surface, and at other points it is 70,000 km. NASA plans to build a small space station, called Lunar Gateway, here later this decade.

But before that, the agency starts small. CAPSTONE is a scrappy commercial mission that was financially supported, in part, by a $13.7 million grant from NASA. Developed by a Colorado-based company called Advanced Space, with help from Terran Orbital, the spacecraft itself is modest in size, just a 12U cubesat with a mass of around 25 kg. It could comfortably fit inside a mini fridge.

The spacecraft was launched in late June on an Electron rocket from New Zealand. Electron is the smallest rocket to launch a payload to the Moon, and its manufacturer, Rocket Lab, has emphasized the capabilities of the booster and its Photon upper stage to the maximum to send CAPSTONE on its long journey to the Moon. . This was Rocket Lab’s first deep space mission.

After separating from its rocket, the spacecraft spent nearly five months traveling to the Moon, following what’s called a ballistic lunar transfer that uses the Sun’s gravity to follow an expansive trajectory. Along the way, flight controllers managed to resolve a rotation issue that otherwise could have resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. It was a circuitous route, taking the spacecraft more than three times the distance between Earth and the Moon before turning back, but requiring relatively little propellant to reach its destination.

For example, the burn performed by CAPSTONE on Sunday evening to transition to a near-rectilinear halo orbit was extremely minimal. According to Advanced Space, the vehicle burned its propellant for 16 minutes at about 0.44 Newtons, which is equivalent to the weight of about nine pieces of standard printer paper.

CAPSTONE will not only serve as a scout in this new orbit – verifying the theoretical properties modeled by NASA engineers – it will also demonstrate a new autonomous navigation system around and near the Moon. This Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is important because there is a lack of fixed tracking assets near the Moon, especially as the cislunar environment becomes more crowded over the next decade.

The mission is scheduled to operate for at least six months in this orbit.

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