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HomeScienceNASA Capstone Cubesat Arrives at Moon Sunday, Clearing Way for Artemis

NASA Capstone Cubesat Arrives at Moon Sunday, Clearing Way for Artemis

While NASA works toward a planned launch of its first big Artemis mission next week, a tiny cubesat is aiming to reach the moon this weekend and serve as a pathfinder for upcoming stages of the Artemis program.

Capstone, short for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, is the size of a microwave oven and designed to circle the moon via an eccentric elliptical orbit (formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit) that has never been flown by a spacecraft before. 

Capstone is checking out the route in advance of NASA’s plans to build a space station dubbed Gateway to ply the same orbit. The Gateway will be a waypoint for Artemis astronauts, equipment and supplies on their way to the lunar surface. 

The small satellite is expected to perform its initial orbit insertion maneuver at 4:18 p.m. PT on Sunday. The spacecraft’s propulsion system will fire at just the right time while traveling 3,800 miles per hour (6,116 kilometers per hour) to enter the special orbital path, which will allow it to circle the moon along a very fuel efficient route, relying instead on the gravitational pulls of the moon and Earth to stay on course. 

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It’s expected to take about a week for mission engineers to confirm and fine-tune the path of Capstone after orbital insertion. 

Capstone’s journey to the moon has been tumultuous. The compact craft lost communications with Earth for a while in July and later suffered a major technical glitch that sent it tumbling out of control for a period. The team was eventually able to get it oriented, under control and back on track. 

“What this Capstone team has overcome to date has been incredible,” said Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for Capstone and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, in a statement. Advanced Space is a Colorado company that owns and operates Capstone for NASA.

“Overcoming challenges is the purpose of a pathfinding mission,” Cheetham added.

After it enters its orbit, Capstone is scheduled to fire its thrusters only once every six and a half days to maintain it, if needed. The goal is to stay in its orbit for at least six months so engineers can learn more about what will be required to keep Gateway and other spacecraft on such a path for many years. 

Abdullah Anaman
Abdullah Anaman
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