NASA’s CubeSat, designed to test a unique lunar orbit is safely in space and on the first leg of its journey to the Moon.
The spacecraft is heading toward an orbit intended in the future for Gateway, a lunar space station built by the agency and its commercial and international partners that will support NASA’s Artemis program, including astronaut missions.
After postponing its launch by a day to allow more time to perform final systems checks, the mission, led by Advanced Space, took off aboard a Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 5.55 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
The CAPSTONE mission, or the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, aims to send a microwave oven-sized spacecraft weighing just 55 pounds to elliptical lunar orbit.
CAPSTONE is currently in low-Earth orbit, and it will take the spacecraft about four months to reach its targeted lunar orbit, NASA said.
CAPSTONE is attached to Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon, an interplanetary third stage that will send CAPSTONE on its way to deep space. Shortly after launch, Lunar Photon separated from Electron’s second stage. Over the next six days, Photon’s engine will periodically ignite to accelerate it beyond low-Earth orbit, where Photon will release the CubeSat on a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the Moon.
CAPSTONE will then use its own propulsion and the Sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way to the Moon. The gravity-driven track will dramatically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to get to the Moon.
“Delivering the spacecraft for launch was an accomplishment for the entire mission team, including NASA and our industry partners. Our team is now preparing for separation and initial acquisition for the spacecraft in six days,” said Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for CAPSTONE and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, which owns and operates CAPSTONE on behalf of NASA. “We have already learned a tremendous amount getting to this point, and we are passionate about the importance of returning humans to the Moon, this time to stay,” he added.
As a pathfinder for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit.
CAPSTONE’s orbit also establishes a location that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days, requiring less propulsion capability for spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface than other circular orbits.
After a four-month journey to its destination, CAPSTONE will orbit this area around the Moon for at least six months to understand the characteristics of the orbit.
The peer-to-peer information that determines CAPSTONE’s position in space will be used to evaluate its autonomous navigation software.
If successful, this software, referred to as the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS), will allow future spacecraft to determine their location without having to rely exclusively on tracking from Earth. This capability could enable future technology demonstrations to perform on their own without support from the ground and allow ground-based antennas to prioritize valuable science data over more routine operational tracking.
A successful CAPSTONE mission is expected to pave the way and expand opportunities for small and more affordable space and exploration missions to the Moon, Mars and other destinations throughout the solar system.
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