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NASA launches Capstone, a 55-pound CubeSat to the moon

7 Mins read

June 27, 2022: NASA announced that CAPSTONE’s launch is now scheduled for 5:55 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday. Coverage on NASA Television starts at 5 a.m.

NASA will be busy near the moon in the coming years.

A giant rocket will carry a capsule without astronauts on board around the moon and back up, perhaps before the end of summer. A parade of robotic landers will deliver experiments on the moon to collect piles of scientific data, especially on water ice trapped in the polar regions. In a few years, astronauts will return there, more than half a century since the last Apollo moon landing.

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

This week, a spacecraft called CAPSTONE will be launched as the first piece of Artemis to go to the moon. Compared to what follows, it is modest in size and scope.

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

But it is unlike any previous mission to the moon in many ways. It could serve as a template for public-private partnerships that NASA could enter into to get better value for money on interplanetary travel.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I’m not sure it was ever put together that way,” said Bradley Cheetham, chief executive and president of Advanced Space, the company that manages the mission for NASA.

The launch was scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, the launch was delayed by at least a day to give Rocket Lab, an American-New Zealand company that provides CAPSTONE’s ride to Earth orbit, more time to do the final system checks. Feed.

Rocket Lab now aims to launch Tuesday at 5:55 a.m. Dutch time. Coverage on NASA Television starts at 5 a.m.

The mission’s full name is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will act as an explorer for the lunar orbit, where a human-crewed space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. That outpost, called 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. First, it’s on a launch pad, not in Florida but New Zealand. Second, NASA has not designed or built CAPSTONE and will not operate it. The agency doesn’t even own it. CAPSTONE belongs to Advanced Space, a 45-person company on the outskirts of Denver.


The spacecraft follows a slow but efficient orbit to the moon. There are daily launch opportunities until July 27. If the spaceship lifts off the ground by then, regardless of what day it launches, it will enter orbit around the moon on the same day: November 13.

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

“It’s another way for NASA to figure out what it needs to find out and cut costs,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

Advance Space’s contract with NASA for CAPSTONE, signed in 2019, cost $20 million. The ride to space for CAPSTONE is also small and cheap: just under $10 million for a Rocket Lab launch.

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

Even Beresheet, a small effort by an Israeli nonprofit to land on the moon in 2019, cost $100 million.

“I see this as a pioneer for how we can help facilitate commercial missions beyond Earth,” said Mr. Baker.

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

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

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

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

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

NASA decided that the best place to place this outpost would be in what is known as a nearly rectilinear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are affected by the gravitational pull of two bodies – the Earth and the Moon. The influence of the two bodies helps make the rotation very stable, minimizing the amount of fuel needed to keep a spacecraft around the moon.

The gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees to the line of sight from Earth. (This is the almost rectilinear part of the name.) So a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon where communication would be interrupted.

Gateway’s orbit will come within about 2,200 miles of the moon’s north pole and will loop out to 44,000 miles away as it passes over the south pole. A journey around the moon takes about a week.

In terms of the underlying mathematics, exotic trajectories such as an almost rectilinear halo orbit are well understood. But this is also an orbit where no spacecraft has been before.


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

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

“The biggest uncertainty knows where you are,” Mr. Cheetham said. “You never know where you are in space. So you always have an estimate of where it is with some uncertainty around it.”

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE will triangulate an estimate of its position using signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network from radio dishes and then, if necessary, push itself back to the desired orbit just after the moon’s farthest point has passed.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternate method of finding its position. It is unlikely that anyone will spend the time and expense building a GPS network around the moon. But there are other spacecraft, including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, orbiting the moon, and more that are likely to arrive in the coming years. Communicating with each other, a fleet of spacecraft in different orbits could set up an ad hoc GPS.

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

When it started developing CAPSTONE, Advanced Space also decided to add a computer chip-scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compare that time to what is broadcast from Earth. That data can also help determine the location of the spacecraft.

Because Advanced Space owns CAPSTONE, it had the flexibility to make that change without permission from NASA. And while the agency still works closely together on such projects, this flexibility could be a boon to private companies like Advanced Space and NASA.

“Because we had a commercial contract with our suppliers, when we needed to change something, we didn’t have to go through a major review of government contracting officers,” said Mr. Cheetham. “That helped from a speed perspective.”

The flip side is that because Advanced Space had agreed to a flat fee for the mission, the company couldn’t go to NASA to ask for additional money (although it received other payments due to supply chain delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic). More traditional NASA contracts known as “cost-plus” reimburse companies for what they spend and add to that a fee — received as profit — giving them little incentive to keep costs in check.

“As things came up, we had to figure out how to deal with them very efficiently,” said Mr. Cheetham.

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

Until CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s work was primarily theoretical — analyzing orbits and writing software for its ad-hoc GPS — not building and operating spacecraft.

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

In recent decades, small satellites known as CubeSats have multiplied, allowing more companies to quickly build spacecraft based on a standardized design in which each cube measures 10 centimeters or four inches. CAPSTONE is one of the largest, with a volume of 12 cubes, but Advanced Space was able to buy it almost ready-made from Terran Orbital.

For example, most CubeSats are in low Earth orbit, just a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is almost a quarter of a million miles away. That required a lot of troubleshooting.

“No one has flown to the moon with a CubeSat,” Mr. Cheetham said. “So it makes sense that nobody built radios to fly CubeSats to the moon. And so we had to dig in to understand a lot of those details and work with different people to have the systems that could work.

Mr. Hartman, Gateway’s program manager, is enthusiastic about CAPSTONE but says continuing with the Moon Outpost is not essential. NASA has already awarded contracts to construct Gateway’s first two modules. The European Space Agency is also contributing two modules.

“Can we fly without it?” Mr. Hartman said about CAPSTONE. “Yes. Is it mandatory? No.”

But he added, “Any time you can reduce error bars in your models is always good.”

Mr. Cheetham is thinking about what might come next, perhaps more missions to the moon for NASA or other commercial partners. He also thinks further away.

“I’m intrigued by thinking about how we could do something similar to Mars,” he said. “I’m personally quite interested in Venus as well. I don’t think it gets enough attention.”

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