NASA will release the 55-pound CubeSat Capstone to the Moon

NASA will release the 55-pound CubeSat Capstone to the Moon
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June 26, 2022: On Sunday, NASA announced a delay of at least a day in the launch of CAPSTONE to give more time to carry out the latest system inspections. The article has been updated.

In the coming years, NASA will deal with the moon.

A giant rocket will probably climb on top of a capsule with no astronauts around and behind it until the end of the summer. The robot will conduct experiments on the moon to gather a lot of scientific information about the parade of landers, especially the locked water ice in the polar regions. A few years later, astronauts will have to go there more than half a century after Apollo’s descent to the moon.

All of this is part of NASA’s 21st-century lunar program, named after Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

This week, the spacecraft CAPSTONE will be released as the first piece of Artemis going to the moon. Compared to what will be watched, it is modest in terms of size and coverage.

There will be no astronauts at CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is very small, as big as a microwave oven. This robot probe will not even land on the moon.

But in many ways, this is different from any previous mission to the Moon. This could serve as a template for a public-private partnership that NASA could undertake to make better profits on interplanetary travel in the future.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I’m not sure it ever came together,” said Bradley Cheetham, chief executive and president of Advanced Space, which runs NASA’s mission.

The launch was scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, the launch was at least a day late for submission to the missile laboratory. US-New Zealand company Provides CAPSTONE launch into orbit, more time to perform final system checks.

“Teams are assessing weather and other factors to determine the date of the next launch attempt,” NASA said. in a blog post. “The next issue for the current period will be on June 28.”

The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. He will play the role of a scout in lunar orbit, where a manned space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. This outpost, called Gateway, will serve as a road station where future crews will stop before reaching the lunar surface.

CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA in several ways. First, he sits on the launch pad in New Zealand, not Florida. Second, NASA did not design or build the CAPSTONE and will not operate it. The agency does not even own it. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company based on the outskirts of Denver.

The spacecraft makes a slow but efficient trajectory towards the moon and arrives in November. 13. If weather conditions or a technical problem cause the missile to miss that instantaneous launch, there is an additional chance until July 27. If the spacecraft rises from the ground by then, it will again reach the lunar orbit on the same day: November. 13.

The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to work with private companies in new ways in the hope of gaining additional opportunities at lower cost.

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

Advance Space’s contract with NASA for CAPSTONE in 2019 is worth $ 20 million. For CAPSTONE, space travel is also small and inexpensive: less than $ 10 million for a release by Rocket Lab.

“It will be less than $ 30 million in less than three years,” said Christopher Baker, chief executive of NASA’s executive program for small spacecraft technology. “Relatively fast and relatively low price.”

Even Beresheet is an effort by an Israeli non-profit organization to land on the moon It will cost $ 100 million in 2019.

“I see this as a wayfarer on how we can help facilitate commercial missions outside of Earth,” he said. Baker said.

CAPSTONE’s main mission is to last six months with the possibility of an additional year, Dr. Cheetham said.

The information he collects will help those planning a lunar outpost known as the Gateway.

When President Donald J. Trump announced in 2017 that the main priority of his administration’s space policy was to send astronauts back to the moon, NASA used the words “reusable” and “sustainable.”

This prompted NASA to build a space station around the moon to be a key part of how astronauts get to the surface of the moon. Such a scene will make it easier for them to reach different parts of the moon.

The first Artemis landing mission, currently scheduled for 2025, but likely to retreat, will not use the Gateway. But there will be subsequent missions.

NASA has decided that the best place to place this outpost is known as a halo orbit close to a straight line.

Halo orbits are orbits affected by the gravitational force of two bodies – in this case the Earth and the Moon. The effect of the two bodies helps keep the orbit high and stable, minimizing the amount of fuel needed for a spacecraft to orbit the moon.

Gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees to the line of sight from Earth. (This is close to the straight line of the name.) Thus, the spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the Moon, where communication will be cut off.

Gateway’s orbit is about 2,200 miles from the Moon’s North Pole, and it rotates 44,000 miles as it passes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about a week.

From a basic mathematical point of view, exotic trajectories such as the near-linear halo orbit are well understood. But it is also an orbit that no spacecraft has ever flown before.


“We think we’re doing it very, very well,” said Dan Hartman, Gateway’s program manager. “But with this special CAPSTONE payload, we can help validate our models.”

In practice, it may take some trial and error to figure out how to best keep a spaceship in any orbit, without any global positioning system satellites around the moon, to determine exact locations.

“The biggest uncertainty is actually knowing where you are,” Dr. said. Cheetham said. “You never know where you are in space. So you can always guess where you are with an uncertainty around. ”

Like other NASA missions, it will triangulate the approximate position using CAPSTONE Signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network turn off the radio dish antennas and then, if necessary, move itself into the desired orbit after passing the farthest point of the moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method to find its position. It is unlikely that anyone will spend time and money to build a GPS network around the Moon. But there are other spacecraft, including NASA’s Lunar Exploration Orbit, the bear is circling and more likely to come in the coming years. Spacecraft in different orbits can communicate with each other and build essentially special GPS.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for more than seven years, and now it will test the concept with CAPSTONE, which sends forward and reverse signals with the Lunar Exploration Orbiter. “Over time, we will be able to determine the location of both spacecraft,” said Dr. Cheetham said.

As CAPSTONE began to develop, Advanced Space decided to add a computer chip-scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compare it to that of Earth at that time. This information can also help determine the exact location of the spacecraft.

Because he owned the Advanced Space CAPSTONE, he had the flexibility to make this change without permission from NASA. Although the agency is still working closely on such projects, this flexibility could be a boon for both private companies such as Advanced Space and NASA.

“Because we have a commercial contract with our suppliers, when something needed to change, it didn’t have to go through a big review by government contractors,” he said. Cheetham said. “It helped in terms of speed.”

On the plus side, the company could not go to NASA to ask for extra money because it was negotiating a fixed fee for the Advanced Space mission (although it did receive additional payments due to supply chain delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic). More traditional NASA contracts, known as cost-plus, compensate companies for what they spend, plus a fee that gives them a profit, which gives them less incentive to control costs.

“As things turned out, we had to figure out how to deal with them very effectively,” he said. Cheetham said.

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed-value contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which now sends cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, or at a much lower price than the agency’s own spacecraft. NASA’s investment in SpaceX has allowed it to attract non-NASA customers interested in launching payloads and private astronauts into orbit.

Prior to CAPSTONE, the work of Advanced Space was largely theoretical – the analysis of orbits and the writing of software for its ad hoc GPS – not the creation and operation of a spacecraft.

The company is still not in the business of building spacecraft. “We bought a spaceship,” said Dr. Cheetham said. “I tell people that the only equipment we build here at Advanced is Legos. We have an excellent Lego collection. ”

In the last few decades, Small satellites known as CubeSats have proliferated, allows more companies to quickly build spacecraft based on a standard design with a cube size of 10 centimeters or four inches. CAPSTONE is one of the largest with a capacity of 12 cubic meters, but Advanced Space was able to get it from Irvine’s Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems in Irvine, California.

This still required the solution of many problems. For example, most CubeSats They are in low Earth orbit, only a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is about a quarter of a million miles away.

“No one flew CubeSat on the moon,” said Dr. Cheetham said. “So it makes sense for no one to set up a radio to launch CubeSats on the moon. And so we really had to dive in to partner with a few different people to actually understand many of these details and have systems that work.

Mr. Gateway program manager Hartman is excited about CAPSTONE, but says it’s not important to move forward with the Moon outpost. NASA has already signed contracts for the construction of the first two modules of the Gateway. The European Space Agency also contributes to two modules.

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

But he added: “It’s always a good thing that you can reduce the error bars in your models.”

Dr. Cheetham is thinking about what could happen next, perhaps more missions to the moon for NASA or other commercial partners. He also thinks farther.

“I’m more interested in thinking about how we can do something similar to Mars,” he said. “I’m really interested in Venus personally,” he said. I don’t think that’s enough attention. “

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