The CAPSTONE spacecraft is scheduled to launch in October 2021 from New Zealand. (Image Credit: NASA/Rocket Lab/Advanced Space/Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems)
The Earth is surrounded by literal space garbage, making it hard to maneuver already. Now it seems we plan to do the same with the Moon. Is this really a good idea?
NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation CubeSat (CAPSTONE) is set to jump-start plans for human exploration of the moon. The spacecraft launches in October from New Zealand aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket.
CAPSTONE is the same size as a microwave and weighs 25 kilograms. Its mission is to test and validate the near rectilinear halo orbit’s (NRHO) orbital stability around the moon. This is the same path planned for NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a small space station that expects to orbit the moon, allowing astronauts to land on its surface. The Gateway is a crucial component for NASA’s Artemis program that sets up a long-term human presence on the moon toward the decade’s end.
CAPSTONE also helps to ensure the safety of future spacecraft by verifying navigating technologies and validating the halo-shaped orbit’s dynamics.
It takes three months for CAPSTONE to arrive. Once there, it orbits its target destination around the moon for six months, understanding its orbital characteristics. It also validates the power and propulsion requirements to maintain its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, limiting logistical uncertainties. The CubeSat orbits within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its close pass. It also stays 43,500 miles away from the other pole at its most distant point.
It’s expected to take CAPSTONE three months to arrive at the moon’s orbit after being released from Rocket Lab’s Propulsion satellite bus. (Image Credit: NASA/Rocket Lab/Advanced Space/Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems)
Another task for the CubeSat involves testing a navigation system with its second payload flight computer and radio, which measures its position relative to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). By utilizing the spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation system, future spacecraft can pinpoint their location relative to the moon without depending on Earth’s tracking systems.
Advanced Space of Westminster, Colorado, the company that developed the spacecraft in collaboration with NASA, says it’s fully integrated and undergoing integration testing, on track for October’s launch. Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems built the CAPSTONE platform while Stellar Exploration provides the propulsion system.
Technologies developed for CAPSTONE are also being used in other spacecraft. For instance, the Stellar Exploration propulsion system was integrated into a commercial spacecraft. Additionally, two interplanetary Rocket Lab Photons were chosen for NASA’s ESCAPADE Mars mission.
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