February 1, 2023

A CubeSat is Flying to the Moon to Make Sure Lunar Gateway’s Orbit is Actually Stable

The CAPSTONE, a 12-unit CubeSat owned and run by Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado, is an innovation demonstrator that will evaluate the stability of a halo orbit and a number of vital systems. The mission is arranged to release on May 31st (at the earliest), when a Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft bus will introduce the CAPSTONE on its four-month journey to the Moon. After a series of “clean-up” maneuvers that will place the spacecraft into its orbit, the CAPSTONE will spend at least six months around the Moon, firing its thrusters only occasionally to preserve its orbit.

Prior to this years is over, NASA will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. A key part of this is the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting space station that will facilitate routine journeys to and from the lunar surface.
The Gateway will have what is known in orbital mechanics as a “near rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO), suggesting it will orbit the Moon from pole to pole. To check the long-term stability of this orbit, NASA will be sending out the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) to the Moon by the end of May. This nine-month CubeSat mission will be the very first spacecraft to evaluate this orbit and show its benefits for the Gateway.

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Before this decade is over, NASA will send out astronauts to the Moon for the first time considering that the Apollo Era. To evaluate the long-term stability of this orbit, NASA will be sending out the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) to the Moon by the end of May. After a series of “clean-up” maneuvers that will insert the spacecraft into its orbit, the CAPSTONE will spend at least six months around the Moon, firing its thrusters just occasionally to preserve its orbit.

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These tests will verify the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as forecasted by NASAs models, minimizing logistical unpredictabilities. This system will measure the position of the CAPSTONE CubeSat relative to NASAs Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)– which has been in orbit of the Moon given that 2009– without relying on ground stations.

Animation of the CAPSTONE mission in orbit of the Moon. Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter
This elliptical orbit will take CAPSTONE on a path that leads from one lunar pole to the other, tracing a consistent oval pattern around the Moon. It will take almost a week to complete and will see the CubeSat taking a trip slowest when it is around the South Pole, where it will be at its farthest range from the surface (76,000 km, 47,000 mi). The spacecraft will reach its peak velocity and make its closest pass to the surface area at 3,400 km (2,100 mi) when it reaches above the North Pole.
Elwood Agasid, a deputy program supervisor of Small Spacecraft Technology at NASAs Ames Research Center, discussed in a NASA press release:
” CAPSTONE will be exactly managed and preserved and will benefit significantly from the nearly-stable physics of its near rectilinear halo orbit. The burns will be timed to give the spacecraft an extra increase as it naturally develops momentum– this needs a lot less fuel than a more circular orbit would require.” This orbit has actually an included bonus of allowing Gateway to have optimum interactions with future Artemis objectives operating on the lunar surface area in addition to back to Earth. This might unlock new opportunities for future lunar science and exploration efforts.”
These tests will validate the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as forecasted by NASAs designs, reducing logistical uncertainties. Throughout its numerous orbits, the CAPSTONE will show the dependability of an ingenious spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation system. This system will measure the position of the CAPSTONE CubeSat relative to NASAs Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)– which has actually remained in orbit of the Moon given that 2009– without depending on ground stations.
In this illustration, NASAs Orion spacecraft approaches the Gateway in lunar orbit. Credits: NASA
To evaluate this system, CAPSTONE will carry a second dedicated payload flight computer system and radio, which will carry out calculations to identify where the CubeSat is in its orbital path. The data gotten from this crosslink with the LRO will be utilized to measure how far apart the 2 satellites are and how quickly this distance changes. This peer-to-peer information sharing will enable mission controllers to assess CAPSTONEs self-governing navigation software application and figure out the CubeSats position in real-time.
By confirming this software, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS), future NASA missions (as well as agency and business partners) will have the ability to identify the location of their spacecraft without depending on Earth-based tracking systems. This includes the included advantage of freeing up bandwidth for ground-based antennas, allowing objective controllers to mission science information transmissions over the reasonably regular tracking process.
NASA engineers likewise anticipate that the NRHO will enable them to station much larger spacecraft in orbit around the Moon for about 15 years. This consists of the Gateway itself and the spacecraft that will dock with it to refuel or conduct the next leg of their journey– i.e., the Orion spacecraft and the Deep Space Transport (DST). This is vital to NASAs “Moon to Mars” objective architecture, which will include sending crewed objectives to the Red Planet in the early 2030s.
Other commercial partners consist of the California-based company Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems (a subsidiary of the Terran Orbital Corporation), which built the CubeSat platform, and Stellar Exploration, Inc., which is offering CAPSTONEs propulsion system. The CAPSTONE job is being handled by NASAs Small Spacecraft Technology (SST) program, funded by NASAs Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), and developed through NASAs Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

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