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

Microwave-sized spacecraft will test new orbit between Earth and moon
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tiny satellite called CubeSat, about the size of a microwave oven and weighing just 55 pounds (25 kilograms), will be the first to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit. CubeSat will act as a beacon for Gateway, an orbiting lunar outpost that will serve as a way station between Earth and the moon for astronauts.

The so-called nearly linear halo orbit is very long and requires little energy to maintain, while providing stability for long-term missions – this is exactly what the Gateway will need. The orbit is at a balanced point in the gravity 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 take off from the launch pad at 6 a.m. ET on Monday, June 27. The CubeSat will be launched on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from 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 could provide more data on the power and propulsion requirements for the Gateway.

CAPSTONE is seen above the Moon's north pole in this image.

CubeSat’s orbit will bring the spacecraft within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 kilometers) of one lunar pole at its closest pass and 43,500 miles (70,06.5 kilometers) to the other pole every seven days. Using this orbit would be more energy efficient for spacecraft traveling to and from the Gateway, as it requires less propulsion than a more circular orbit.

The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test its communication capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the advantage of having a clear view of the Earth and also provides coverage for the Moon’s south pole, where the first Artemis astronauts are expected to land in 2025.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, 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 teams on the ground to measure the distance between each and home at CAPSTONE’s exact location.

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

“The CAPSTONE mission is a valuable precursor not only for Gateway, but also for the Orion spacecraft and the Human Landing System,” said Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Gateway and Orion will use data from CAPSTONE to validate our model, which will be important for operations and planning for the future mission.”

Small satellites on big missions

Christopher Baker, small spacecraft technology program manager at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the CAPSTONE mission is a fast, low-cost demonstration with the intent to help lay a foundation for future small spacecraft.

Small tasks that can be put together and started quickly at a lower cost mean they can take risks that larger and more expensive tasks cannot.

“Often in a flight test, you learn as much, or even more, from failure than from success. Knowing that there is a possibility of failure, we can afford to take more risks, but we can accept that failure in turn.” to move on to advanced capabilities,” Baker said. “In that case, failure is an option.”

Lessons learned from smaller CubeSat missions could inform larger missions ahead – and CubeSats are already on their way from low Earth orbit for more challenging targets.

NASA’s InSight rover wasn’t alone when it embarked on its nearly seven-month journey to Mars in 2018. Two suitcase-sized spacecraft called MarCOfollowed InSight on its journey. They were the first cube satellites to fly into deep space.

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

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Engineers were excited when tiny satellites flew behind InSight in space to reach Mars. After InSight landed, CubeSats continued to fly beyond Mars, but remained silent until the end of the year. But MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats can participate in larger missions.

This small but powerful spacecraft will play a supporting role in September, when the DART mission, or Double Asteroid Redirect Test, will deliberately crash into the lunar moon Dimorphos as it orbits the near-Earth asteroid Didymos to alter the asteroid’s motion in space. .

The collision will be recorded LICIACube or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat travels on DART, which launches in November 2021, and will be deployed from DART before it collides so it can record what happened. Three minutes after impact, CubeSat will fly past Dimorphos to capture images and video. Video of the impact will be transmitted back to Earth.
this The Artemis I mission will also carry three boxes of cereal CubeSats hitchhiking into deep space. Separately, small satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map the lunar puddles, perform a lunar flyby, and study particles and magnetic fields flowing from the sun.

More affordable missions

The CAPSTONE mission is based on NASA’s partnerships with commercial companies such as Rocket Lab, Stellar Exploration, Terran Orbital Corporation, and Advanced Space. The Moon mission was built using a fixed-price small business innovative research contract — in less than three years and under $30 million.

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

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Baker said such contracts could expand opportunities for smaller, more affordable missions to the moon and other destinations while creating a framework for commercial support of future lunar operations.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for launch.

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