The first cubesat to fly and work on the moon has successfully arrived

The first cubesat to fly and work on the moon has successfully arrived

The CAPSTONE payload can be seen here, atop an Electron rocket in New Zealand.
enlarge / The CAPSTONE payload can be seen here, atop an Electron rocket in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab

After a nearly five-month journey far beyond the moon and back, the small CAPSTONE spacecraft has successfully entered orbit around the moon.

“We’ve received confirmation that CAPSTONE has arrived in a near-linear halo orbit, and that’s a huge, huge step for the agency,” NASA’s head of exploration systems development, Jim Free, said Sunday evening. “It just completed its first insert fire a few minutes ago. And in the coming days they will continue to refine its orbit and be the first cube sat to fly to the moon and operate.”

This is an important job for NASA, and a special one, because it’s really stable and only needs a small amount of propellant to hold its position. At its closest point to the moon, it passes about a week-long orbit within 3,000 km of the lunar surface, and at other points it is 70,000 km away. NASA plans to build a small space station here later this decade, called the Lunar Gateway.

But before then, the agency starts out small. CAPSTONE is a shoddy, commercial mission that was funded in part by a $13.7 million grant from NASA. Developed by a Colorado-based company called Advanced Space, with help from Terran Orbital, the spacecraft itself is modest in size, just a 12U cube with a mass of about 25 kg. It would fit comfortably in a mini fridge.

The spacecraft was launched on an Electron rocket from New Zealand in late June. Electron is the smallest rocket that launches a payload to the moon, and the manufacturer, Rocket Lab, emphasized the capabilities of the booster and its Photon upper stage to send CAPSTONE on its long journey to the moon. This was Rocket Lab’s first deep space mission.

After separating from its rocket, the spacecraft traveled to the moon for nearly five months, following what’s known as a ballistic lunar transfer that uses the sun’s gravity to track a vast trajectory. On the way, the flight controllers managed to solve a running problem which could otherwise have resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. This was a roundabout that put the spacecraft at a distance of more than three times that between the Earth and the Moon before curving back, but relatively little propellant was needed to reach its destination.

For example, the combustion CAPSTONE performed Sunday night to transition into a nearly rectilinear halo orbit was extremely small. According to advanced spacethe vehicle burned its bow thruster at about 0.44 Newtons for 16 minutes, which is equivalent to the weight of about nine pieces of standard printer paper.

CAPSTONE will not only serve as a pathfinder in this new orbit – verifying the theoretical properties modeled by NASA engineers – it will also demonstrate a new system of autonomous navigation around and near the moon. This Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is important because there is a lack of fixed tracking resources near the moon, especially as the cislunar environment becomes more crowded in the coming decade.

The mission is scheduled to operate in this orbit for at least six months.

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