Science

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 first cubesat to fly and operate on the moon has successfully arrived

Increase / The CAPSTONE payload is seen here, atop New Zealand’s Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab

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

“We’ve received confirmation that CAPSTONE has reached a nearly rectilinear halo orbit, and that’s a huge, huge step for the agency,” NASA’s head of research systems development, Jim Free, said Sunday night. “It just completed its first insertion a few minutes ago. And over the next few days, it will continue to refine its orbit and be the first cubesat to fly and operate on the Moon.”

This is an important orbit for NASA, and a special one, because it is really stable and requires only a small amount of propellant to maintain position. At its closest point to the Moon, this orbit, which lasts about a week, passes within 3,000 km of the Moon’s surface, and at other points it is 70,000 km away. 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 modest, commercial mission that is funded, in part, by NASA with $13.7 million. Developed by Colorado-based Advanced Space with help from Terran Orbital, the spacecraft itself is modest in size, just a 12U cubesat with a mass of about 25 kg. It could fit comfortably in a mini-fridge.

The spacecraft was launched at the end of June by an Electron rocket from New Zealand. The Electron is the smallest rocket to launch cargo to the Moon, and its manufacturer, Rocket Lab, has maximized the capabilities of the booster and Photon upper stage to send the CAPSTONE on its long journey to the Moon. This was Rocket Lab’s first mission into deep space.

After separating from its rocket, the spacecraft spent nearly five months traveling to the Moon, following what is known as a ballistic lunar transfer that uses the Sun’s gravity to follow an expansive trajectory. Along the way, the flight controllers succeeded solve the spinning problem it could otherwise lead to the loss of the spacecraft. This was a circuitous path, bringing the spacecraft more than three times the distance between the Earth and the Moon before returning, but requiring relatively little propellant to reach its destination.

For example, the burn that CAPSTONE performed on Sunday night to transition into a near-rectilinear orbit was extremely small. According to Advanced Spacethe vehicle fired its thruster for 16 minutes at about 0.44 newtons, equivalent to the weight of about nine pieces of standard printer paper.

CAPSTONE will not only serve as a guide in this new orbit—checking 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 increasingly dense over the next decade.

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



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