NASA to Launch 55-Pound CubeSat Capstone to the Moon

NASA to Launch 55-Pound CubeSat Capstone to the Moon
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In the coming years NASA will be busy on the moon.

A giant rocket will blow up a capsule without astronauts around and behind the moon, perhaps before the end of summer. A robotic landing ceremony will leave experiments on the moon to collect scientific data reams, particularly about locked water ice in polar regions. A few years from now, astronauts will be returning there after more than half a century since Apollo’s landing on the moon.

These are all part of NASA’s 21st century lunar program, named after Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Earlier on Monday, a spacecraft called CAPSTONE is scheduled to launch as Artemis’ first piece to the moon. It’s modest in size and scope compared to what’s to follow.

There will be no astronauts in CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is very small, about the size of a microwave oven. This robotic probe won’t even land on the moon.

But in many ways it differs from previous missions to the moon. It could serve as a template for future public-private partnerships that NASA may undertake to get better value for money on interplanetary journeys.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I’m not sure it’s been put together like this before,” said Bradley Cheetham, CEO and president of Advanced Space, the company that manages the NASA mission.

Scope of the launch It will begin at 5 a.m. Eastern Monday on NASA Television. The rocket must be launched at exactly 05:50 a.m. for the spacecraft to ascend to the correct orbit.

The full title of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will eventually serve as a probe for lunar orbit, where a crewed space station will be built as part of Artemis. This outpost, named Gateway, will serve as a way station where future crews will stop before continuing to the lunar surface.

CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA in several ways. For one, it sits on a launch pad in New Zealand, not Florida. Second, NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE and will not operate it. He doesn’t even own the agency. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space, a 45-person company located on the outskirts of Denver.

The spacecraft is in slow but efficient orbit and will arrive on November 1. 13. If weather or a technical problem causes the rocket to miss that instant launch, there are additional chances until 27 July. If the spacecraft lifts off the ground by then, it will reach lunar orbit again on the same day: November. 13.

The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to collaborate in new ways with private companies in hopes of gaining additional capabilities more quickly at a lower cost.

“It’s just another way for NASA to find what it needs to find and keep the cost down,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

The contract that Advance Space signed with NASA for CAPSTONE in 2019 cost $20 million. Space travel for CAPSTONE is also small and cheap: just under $10 million for launch. Rocket Lab, USA-New Zealand company it is a leader in carrying small payloads to orbit.

“In less than three years, it will be under $30 million,” said Christopher Baker, the small spacecraft technology executive program at NASA. “Relatively fast and relatively low cost.”

“I see this as a guide to how we can help facilitate commercial missions beyond Earth.” said Baker.

CAPSTONE’s primary mission is to last six months with the possibility of an additional year, Dr. said Cheetham.

The data it collects will help the planners of the lunar outpost known as the Gateway.

When President Donald J. Trump declared in 2017 that the top priority for his administration’s space policy was to get astronauts back to the moon, “reusable” and “sustainable” were buzzwords at NASA.

This prompted NASA to build a space station around the moon as an important part of how astronauts would reach the lunar surface. Such a staging area would make it easier for them to reach different parts of the Moon.

The first Artemis landing mission, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to be delayed, will not use Gateway. But there will be next missions.

NASA decided that the best place to place this outpost would be what is known as the near-linear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are orbits affected by the gravity of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The impact of the two bodies helps make the orbit highly stable and minimizes the amount of propellant needed to get a spacecraft to orbit the moon.

Gravitational interactions also keep the orbiter at an angle of about 90 degrees to the line-of-sight view from Earth. (This is the near-linear part of the name.) So a spacecraft in this orbit would never pass behind the moon where communications would be cut off.

The orbit the Gateway will travel in comes from within about 2,200 miles of the Moon’s North Pole and spins up to 44,000 miles away as it passes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about a week.

From the point of view of the underlying mathematics, exotic orbits such as a near-linear halo orbit are well understood. But it’s also an orbit where no spacecraft has gone before.


“We think we’ve characterized it very, very well,” said Gateway program manager Dan Hartman. “But with this particular CAPSTONE payload we can help validate our models.”

In practice, without any global positioning system satellites around the moon to pinpoint precise locations, it may take some trial and error to figure out how best to keep the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

“The biggest uncertainty is knowing where you actually are,” says Dr. said Cheetham. “In space you never really know where you are. So you always have a guess of where it is with some uncertainty around it. ”

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE will create triangles using an estimate of its position. Signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network radio satellite dishes and then, if necessary, propel itself into desired orbit just after passing the furthest point from the moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method to find its location. It is unlikely that anyone would spend the time and expense setting up a GPS network around the moon. But there are other spacecraft as well. NASA’s Lunar Rover, revolves around the moon, and more are likely to come in the coming years. By communicating with each other, a fleet of spacecraft in different orbits can, in essence, establish a temporary GPS.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for more than seven years and will now test the concept by sending signals back and forth with the CAPSTONE and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “Over time we will be able to determine where both spacecraft are,” said Dr. said Cheetham.

When Advanced Space began developing CAPSTONE, it decided to add a computer chip-scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compare that time with those broadcast from Earth. This data can also help locate the spacecraft.

Because Advanced Space had CAPSTONE, it had the flexibility to make this change without permission from NASA. While the agency still collaborates closely on such projects, this flexibility could be a boon to both private companies like Advanced Space and NASA.

“Since we have a commercial contract with our vendors, we didn’t have to go through a major scrutiny from government contracting officials when we needed to change something,” Dr. said Cheetham. “This helped in terms of speed.”

The upside was that because Advanced Space negotiated a flat fee for the mission, the company couldn’t go to NASA to ask for additional money (although it did receive extra payments due to supply chain delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic). More traditional NASA contracts, known as “cost plus”, pay companies back what they spend and then add a fee on top of it – taken as profit, which gives them little incentive to keep costs in check.

Dr. said Cheetham.

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed-price contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which once transported cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station at a much lower cost than the agency’s own space shuttles. For SpaceX, NASA’s investments have enabled it to attract non-NASA customers interested in launching payloads and private astronauts into orbit.

Until CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s job was mostly theoretical – writing software for the analysis of trajectories and its custom GPS – not building and operating spacecraft.

The company is still not in the business of building spacecraft. “We bought the spacecraft,” said Dr. said Cheetham. “I tell people the only hardware we build here at Advanced is Legos. We have a great Lego collection.”

In the last few decades, Small satellites known as CubeSats proliferated, enabling more companies to rapidly build spacecraft based on a standard design where each cube measures 10 centimeters or four inches. CAPSTONE is among the largest, with a volume of 12 cubes, but Advanced Space was able to purchase it almost ready-to-use, from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, Calif.

This still required a lot of problem solving. For example, bridge CubeSats They are in low Earth orbit, only a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is almost a quarter of a million miles away.

Dr. said Cheetham. “So it makes sense that no one had built radios to fly CubeSats to the moon. So we had to really dive in to understand a lot of these details and partnered with a few different people to actually have systems that could work.”

Mr. Gateway program manager Hartman is excited about CAPSTONE, but says progress on the lunar outpost is not essential. NASA has already signed contracts for the construction of the first two modules of the Gateway. The European Space Agency also contributes to two modules.

“Can we fly without it?” Mr. Hartman mentioned CAPSTONE. “Yes. Mandatory? Number.”

But he added, “It’s always a good thing whenever you can reduce the error bars in your models.”

Dr. Cheetham thinks what may come next for NASA or other commercial partners, perhaps more missions to the moon. He also thinks more.

“I’m very interested in thinking about how we could make something similar to Mars,” he said. “Actually, I am personally very interested in Venus. I don’t think it’s getting enough attention.”

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