The first CubeSat to fly and operate on the moon has successfully arrived

The first CubeSat to fly and operate on the moon has successfully arrived
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The CAPSTONE payload is seen here on an electron rocket in New Zealand.
Enlarge / The CAPSTONE payload is seen here on an electron rocket in New Zealand.

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

“We’ve had confirmation that CAPSTONE has arrived in near-straight line halo orbit, and that’s a huge, huge step for the agency,” said Jim Free, NASA’s chief of exploration systems development, Sunday night. “He just finished his first insertion a few minutes ago. And over the next few days, they will continue to refine its orbit and become the first CubeSat to fly and operate on the moon.”

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

But before that, the agency starts small. CAPSTONE is a shabby, commercial mission 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, just a 12U CubeSat with a mass of about 25 kg. It could comfortably fit in a mini fridge.

The spacecraft was launched at the end of June with a New Zealand electron rocket. Electron is the smallest rocket capable of delivering a payload to the moon, and its manufacturer, Rocket Lab, has pushed the capabilities of the booster and its photon upper stage to the max 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 spent almost five months traveling to the Moon, following what is known as a lunar ballistic transfer, which uses the Sun’s gravity to follow an extended trajectory. On the way there, the air traffic controllers succeeded Solve a spinning problem which could otherwise have resulted in the loss of the spacecraft. This was a detour that took the spacecraft more than three times the distance between Earth and the Moon before flying back, but required relatively little fuel to reach its destination.

For example, the burn performed by CAPSTONE on Sunday evening to transition into a near-straight line halo orbit was extremely small. According to Advanced Spacethe vehicle burned its engine for 16 minutes with about 0.44 newtons, which corresponds to the weight of about nine sheets of standard printer paper.

CAPSTONE will not only serve as a trailblazer in this new orbit, verifying the theoretical properties modeled by NASA engineers, but will also demonstrate a new system of autonomous navigation around and near the Moon. This Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS for short, is important due to the lack of fixed tracking facilities near the Moon, especially as the cislunar environment becomes denser over the coming decade.

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

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