Tonight a spacecraft no bigger than a microwave oven will become the first so-called “CubeSat” to orbit the Moon and the first to enter a unique orbit around it.
At precisely 7:18 p.m. EST on Sunday, November 13, 2022 NASA’s pathfinding Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) will begin a special kind of orbit of the Moon that NASA believes requires no fuel.
However, it could take a while before NASA knows if the mission is a success. “The CAPSTONE team expects it will take at least five days to analyze data, perform two clean-up maneuvers, and confirm successful insertion,” said the space agency in a statement Friday.
It’s been a difficult journey for the tiny spacecraft since its launch from New Zealand atop a RocketLab Electron rocket on June 28, 2022.
Propelled towards the Moon at 24,500 mph/39,500 km/h, it began spinning in early September after valve issues and was put into safe mode. However, the spacecraft is now stable.
It’s up there to pave the way for NASA’s planned a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit with a habitat module and a port for docking NASA’s Orion spacecraft—due to launch for the first time on the Artemis I test flight this week.
“Gateway” will be assembled over five uncrewed flights from commercial space companies in advance of the Artemis III mission scheduled for 2025—which will have astronauts descend to the lunar surface from the orbiting space station.
Before any of that can happen NASA needs to make sure the strange orbit planned for Gateway is safe.
CAPSTONE will explore a near-rectilinear halo orbit that will see it reach an altitude of 958,000 miles from Earth—more than three times the distance between Earth and the Moon—before being pulled back towards it.
An elongated elliptical oval-shaped orbit at a precise balance point between the gravities of Earth and the Moon, the strange orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days.
It’s necessary because it gives an unobstructed view of Earth and good coverage of the lunar South Pole, which is where Artemis III is scheduled to land two astronauts in 2024/2025 and, eventually, construct a lunar base.
CAPSTONE—which is expected to send back data for six months—will also test a new navigation system. Instead of relying on ground stations it will measure its own position relative to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been in orbit of the Moon since 2009.
Owned and operated by Advanced Space and designed and built by Terran Orbital, CAPSTONE is part of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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