Microwave-sized spacecraft will test new orbit between Earth and Moon

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A tiny spacecraft with big implications for lunar exploration is ready to launch.

The tiny satellite, called CubeSat, is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but it will be the first to test a single elliptical lunar orbit. The CubeSat will serve as a pathfinder for Gateway, an orbiting lunar outpost that will serve as a way station between Earth and the Moon for astronauts.

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

The mission, called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, and known as CAPSTONE, is scheduled to lift off from the launch pad Monday, June 27 at 5:50 a.m. 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 within three months and then spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft can provide more data on the power and propulsion requirements for the gateway.

The CubeSat’s orbit will bring the spacecraft within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 kilometers) of a lunar pole at its closest pass and within 43,500 miles (70,006.5 kilometers) of 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 propulsion than more circular orbits.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test communications capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the advantage of an unobstructed view of Earth while providing coverage for the lunar south pole – where the first astronauts to Artemis are scheduled to land in 2025.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit, which has orbited 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 and navigate to CAPSTONE’s exact location.

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

“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 CAPSTONE data to validate our model, which will be important for operations and future mission planning.”

The CAPSTONE mission is a quick, low-cost demonstration to help lay the foundation for future small spacecraft, said Christopher Baker, small spacecraft technology program manager at the Space Technology Missions Directorate at the Nasa.

Small missions that can be assembled and launched quickly for less means they can take risks that larger, more expensive missions cannot.

“Very often in a flight test you learn as much, if not more, from failure than from success. We can afford to take more risk, knowing that there is a probability of failure, but we can accept that failure in order to move into advanced capabilities,” Baker said. “In this case, failure is an option.”

Lessons learned from smaller CubeSat missions can inform larger missions down the line – and CubeSats have already launched to more difficult destinations than low Earth orbit.

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

During InSight’s entry, descent and landing, MarCO satellites received and transmitted communications from the lander to let NASA know that InSight was safe on the Red Planet’s surface. They were nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, for the robots in the 2008 Pixar movie.

The fact that the tiny satellites made it to Mars, flying behind InSight in space, got engineers excited. CubeSats continued to fly beyond Mars after InSight landed, but fell silent by the end of the year. But MarCO was a great test of how CubeSats can keep up with larger missions.

These tiny but powerful spacecraft will play a supporting role again in September, when the DART mission, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, deliberately crashes into the moon Dimorphos as it orbits the asteroid didymos. close to Earth to modify the movement of the asteroid in space. .

The collision will be recorded by LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat travels on DART, which launched in November 2021, and will deploy from it before impact so it can record what is happening. Three minutes after impact, the CubeSat will fly over Dimorphos to capture images and video. Video of the impact will be broadcast on Earth.

The Artemis I mission will also carry three cereal box-sized CubeSats that will hitchhike in deep space. Separately, the tiny satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map lunar water deposits, perform a lunar flyby and study particles and magnetic fields coming from the sun.

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

Larger missions can cost billions of dollars. The Perseverance rover, currently in Mars exploration, cost more than $2 billion and the Artemis I mission has an estimated cost of $4.1 billion, according to an audit by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.

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

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

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect launch date.

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