NASA's cubesat makes it to the Moon to test orbit for human visitors

After a troubled journey CAPSTONE marks Lunar Gateway for humans

NASA's CAPSTONE spacecraft has become the first cubesat to make it into lunar orbit, despite suffering a navigational glitch that briefly caused it to lose communication with Mission Control en route. 

The cubeSat arrived at its target destination on Sunday at 1939 EST (0039 UTC), NASA confirmed. CAPSTONE – which stands for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment – will spend the next six months tracing a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon that has never been occupied by a spacecraft before.

"CAPSTONE is the first spacecraft to fly an NRHO, and the first cubeSat to operate at the Moon," NASA said in a statement. "In the next five days, CAPSTONE will perform two additional clean-up maneuvers to refine its orbit. After these maneuvers, the team will review data to confirm that CAPSTONE remains on track in the NRHO."

NASA believes the orbit may be stable enough to support Gateway – a floating lunar lab that could serve as a base camp for future astronauts to explore deeper into the solar system. Gateway is made up of two concepts: the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, where the astronauts will live and work; and the Power and Propulsion Element, a 60-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft that will transfer the astronauts to and from the lunar surface. 

The NRHO should allow Gateway to complete a circuit around the Moon every week, and is low enough to bring the outpost close to the lunar surface where astronauts can access the South Pole more easily. The station will also constantly be in Earth's line of sight, meaning communications with home will be faster and less likely to be interrupted. CAPSTONE is a low-cost way of verifying whether a spacecraft occupying an NRHO can circle the Moon whilst expending minimal power.

After fine-tuning its orbit the 55-pound (~27kg), microwave oven-sized cubeSat will pass within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole at its nearest position to the Moon, and 44,500 miles from the other pole every seven days. CAPSTONE carries a flight computer and radio to calculate its position in its orbital path relative to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and will also test communication capabilities with Earth. 

The navigation software uses the LRO as a reference point, and allows the spacecraft to maintain its position in space without relying on monitoring from Earth, NASA explained. "This capability could enable future technology demonstrations to perform on their own without support from the ground and allow ground-based antennas to prioritize valuable science data over more routine operational tracking."

In September, CAPSTONE temporarily lost control of its attitude after performing an orbital burn to get to the Moon. The cubeSat was in a precarious state, repeatedly turning off and on again while spinning in space, until engineers powered down the bird in safe mode and figured out a fix.

Luckily, the spacecraft recovered after new instructions were successfully uploaded to correct its telemetry thanks to support from NASA's Deep Space Network. ®

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