CAPSTONE became the first cubesat to enter lunar orbit last night. Developed through a public-private partnership with NASA, the tiny Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operation and Navigation Experiment tests a unique lunar orbit called the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit, or NRHO. The agency plans to set up a small space station there as part of the Artemis program for the sustained exploration and use of the Moon.
NASA has confirmed that CAPSTONE entered the highly elliptical NRHO at 7:39 p.m. ET last night. Over the next five days, it will fire its engines twice more to refine the orbit.
The microwave-sized CAPSTONE spacecraft was developed under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and is being led by Advanced Space of Westminster, CO. NASA awarded Advanced Space a $13.7 million contract to develop and operate the spacecraft. It was designed and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a Terran Orbital Corporation. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space on behalf of NASA and jointly operated by Terran Orbital and Advanced Space.
CAPSTONE was launched on June 28, 2022 on a Rocket Lab Electron launcher. The launch cost $9.95 million. This results in the total cost of the mission being only $23.65 million, an extremely modest sum for any spacecraft let alone one heading to the Moon.
It encountered a few problems along the way, briefly losing communications with Earth during a course change in July and losing stabilization after another course correction in September. Operators were able to get it back under control a few weeks later, though, and it arrived on the Moon on schedule yesterday.
The NRHO is a highly elliptical orbit that will take a spacecraft as close as 1,000 miles from one lunar pole, but 43,500 miles from the other every seven days.
NASA focuses its lunar operations on the South Pole of the Moon, where scientists believe water exists in the form of ice. The theory is that the water deposited by comets over eons remains there in permanently shadowed regions never exposed to the Sun.
The agency is teaming up with the private sector and three of its International Space Station partners – Europe, Canada and Japan – to build the Gateway as a crossing point between Earth and the Moon. The astronauts will proceed to the bridge on the Orion spacecraft. Some will remain there while others will be transferred to privately built and owned lunar landers for the journey to and from the surface. They will make the trip to the lunar south pole at times when the NRHO orbit is close to the surface. But the orbit also allows access to many other parts of the Moon and line-of-sight communications with Earth.
CAPSTONE will validate NASA power and propulsion requirement models to maintain NRHO orbit and test navigation capabilities using another NASA satellite that has orbited the Moon since 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as benchmark.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was among those who tweeted his congratulations.
The spacecraft will continue to refine its orbit over the next few days and test the planned orbit for the @NASA_Gateway lunar outpost. https://t.co/oy7Rhl2oPf
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) November 14, 2022
Terran Orbital co-founder, president and CEO Marc Bell said they were “privileged to never have a dull moment.” Engineers “continually faced rapidly changing circumstances with precision and innovation, enhanced by the advantages of in-house hardware and software development. The design, modeling and simulation concepts refined throughout the process will ensure the successful flights of countless future generations of spacecraft. Terran Orbital is grateful for the trust, support, and collaboration of NASA, Advanced Space, and Rocket Lab, and we look forward to fostering these partnerships through upcoming collaborations.
Advanced Space CEO and CAPSTONE Principal Investigator Bradley Cheetham called it “a major milestone not just for our organizations, but for our industry.” The NASA and industry team “demonstrated an entirely new approach to supporting space exploration.”
CAPSTONE was Rocket Lab’s first mission beyond Earth orbit using the Lunar Photon upper stage. The company tweeted its congratulations today along with a video of the June 28 launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.
Welcome to the Moon, CAPSTONE pic.twitter.com/atMF35y0tI
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) November 14, 2022
The spacecraft took a rather circuitous route to the Moon called Ballistic Lunar Transfer (BLT) which limits the amount of energy that needs to be expended, which is why the journey took nearly five months.