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CAPSTONE – A demonstrator for NASA’s future Gateway

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26-06-2022 Filippo VOLVERT

On Monday morning, NASA plans to send CAPSTONE, a technology mission into space, to evaluate propulsion performance when using a nearly straight halo lunar orbit. The demonstrator will be launched by a Rocketlab Electron rocket from the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand. The take-off is scheduled for 09:50 UTC and will be followed live on this page.

CAPSTONE – The explorer of the future Lunar Gateway space station

CAPSTONE stands for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It is a technology demonstrator about the size of a microwave oven and weighing only 25 kg, which will be used to test a particular lunar orbit known as a nearly straight halo orbit (NRHO). CAPSTONE will be the first aircraft to take this specific orbit, taking it approximately 1,500 km from one lunar pole to 70,000 km from the other pole every 7 days. The advantage of such an orbit lies in a lower propulsion capacity of spacecraft that go to the surface of the Moon or return compared to conventional circular orbits.

It will take CAPSTONE four months to reach its target destination with the mission of understanding the characteristics of the orbit that will be used to assemble the Gateway, NASA’s space station and which will serve as a junction point for travel to or from Earth, the Moon or Mars.

A true scout under the Artemis program, CAPSTONE will validate propulsion performance to maintain its orbit as predicted by the models. In this way, NASA intends to reduce logistical uncertainties and ensure adequate performance for its spacecraft in transit.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, in orbit around the Moon since 2009, will be used as a reference point for CAPSTONE. The idea is to establish a link between the two spacecraft and use the data to measure the distance between them and their relative speed, which helps determine the position of CAPSTONE in space.

CAPSTONE is a 12 Unit CubeSat that measures 10 cm side by 30 cm high. NASA awarded a $ 13.7 million contract in September 2019 to Advanced Space in Boulder, Colorado to develop and operate the mission in partnership with Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., which handled manufacturing of hardware, assembly and testing. Other partners such as Stellar Exploration, Inc., Space Dynamics Lab, Orion Space Solutions or even Tethers Unlimited have joined the team.

For the launch, NASA turned to RocketLab and its Electron rocket which will be equipped for the occasion with a Photon upper stage. This will have the task of transporting CAPSTONE out of the terrestrial attraction and carrying out a ballistic transfer to the Moon to reach the objective of the NRHO. During the 6 days assigned to it, Photon will provide propulsion, communications, power, as well as location and position with high precision. This will be the first time that the stage developed by RocketLab will perform a mission outside of Earth’s orbit.


Directed by the launch of CAPSTONE – Credit NASA / RocketLab

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