Microwave-sized spacecraft to test new Earth-Moon orbit

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 lunar orbit. The CubeSat will act as a trailblazer for the Gateway, an orbiting lunar outpost that will serve as an intermediate station between Earth and the Moon for astronauts.

The orbit, which is called a near-rectilinear halo orbit, is very elongated and provides stability for long-term missions while requiring little energy to maintain – just what the Gateway will need. The orbit exists at a balanced point in the gravities of the Moon and Earth.

The mission, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, and known as CAPSTONE, is scheduled to lift off from the launch pad on Monday, June 27 at 5:50 am ET. The CubeSat will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.

Once CAPSTONE is launched, it will reach orbit point in three months and spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft may provide more data on the power and propulsion requirements for the Gateway.

The CubeSat’s orbit will take the spacecraft 1,609.3 kilometers from one lunar pole on its closest pass and 70,006.5 kilometers from the other pole every seven days. Using this orbit will be more energy efficient for spacecraft flying to and from the Gateway as it requires less thrust than more circular orbits.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test communication capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the advantage of a clear view of Earth, as well as providing coverage for the lunar south pole – where the first Artemis astronauts are expected to land. in 2025. .

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit, which has been circling the moon for 13 years, will provide a reference point for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft will communicate directly with each other, allowing ground crews to measure the distance between each other and the CAPSTONE’s exact location.

The collaboration between the two spacecraft could test CAPSTONE’s autonomous navigation software, called CAPS, or Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System. If this software works as expected, it could be used by future spacecraft without relying on Earth tracking.

“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, head of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Gateway and Orion will use the CAPSTONE data to validate our model, which will be important for operations and future mission planning.”

Small satellites on big missions

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

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

“Often in a test flight, you learn as much, if not more, from failure than from success. We can take more risks, knowing that there is a probability of failure, but that we can accept that failure to migrate to advanced features,” said Baker. “In this case, failure is an option.”

Lessons from smaller CubeSat missions could inform larger missions in the future – and CubeSats are already gearing up for more challenging destinations than low Earth orbit.

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

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing, MarCO satellites received and transmitted communication from the lander to inform NASA that InSight was safely on the surface of the red planet. They were nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, for the robots in the 2008 Pixar movie.

The fact that the tiny satellites arrived on Mars, flying after InSight through space, excited engineers. The CubeSats continued to fly beyond Mars after InSight landed, but fell silent towards the end of the year. But MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats can keep up with larger missions.

These small but powerful spacecraft will again serve as supporting actors in September, when the DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, mission will deliberately collide with the moon Dimorphos as it orbits the asteroid Didymos near Earth to change the asteroid’s motion in space. .

The collision will be recorded by the LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat is traveling on DART, launched in November 2021, and will deploy from it before impact so it can record what happens. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat will fly through Dimorphos to capture images and videos. Video of the impact will be transmitted back to Earth.
The Artemis I mission will also carry three cereal-box-sized CubeSats hitchhiking into deep space. Separately, the tiny satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map lunar water deposits, conduct a lunar flyby, and study particles and magnetic fields flowing from the sun.

more accessible missions

The CAPSTONE mission is partnered by NASA with commercial companies such as Rocket Lab, Stellar Exploration, Terran Orbital Corporation and Advanced Space. The lunar mission was built using an innovative small-business, fixed-price research contract – in less than three years and for less than $30 million.

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

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These types of contracts can expand opportunities for smaller, more accessible missions to the Moon and other destinations, while creating a framework for commercial support of future lunar operations, Baker said.

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

Fixed: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect release date.

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