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Lunar cubesats are heading for the launch pad

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WASHINGTON – The first cubesats designed to study the moon are expected to launch at the end of this year, with more in development over the next few years.

The NASA Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPSTONE) cubesat navigation and technological operations experience is expected to launch in the fourth quarter of this year on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand. The 12-unit cubesat will test the stability of the near-rectilinear halo (NRHO) orbit that NASA plans to use for the lunar gateway, a key part of its Artemis lunar exploration program.

Thomas Gardner, director of engineering at Advanced Space and program director for CAPSTONE, told a session at the 35th Annual Small Satellites Conference on August 9 that the launch is currently scheduled for late October or early November. This could be delayed, he said, by unspecified “challenges” with the upper lunar Photon stage that Rocket Lab will use for the launch of CAPSTONE.

The main objective of CAPSTONE is to validate this orbit as well as to test a navigation system by communicating with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It will also demonstrate the ability of a cubesat to function in cislunar space: Gardner said that CAPSTONE, if it meets its current launch schedule, will be the first cubesat in cislunar space.

He will have company soon. The inaugural launch of the space launch system, Artemis 1, carries 13 cubesats as secondary payloads. Several of these six-unit cubesats are dedicated to lunar studies, including LunaH-Map, Lunar Flashlight, Lunar IceCube, and LunIR. A key goal for many of these lunar cubesats is to research additional evidence of water ice on the moon, which could be a key resource for future human exploration.

These cubesats are currently installed on the SLS, Andres Martinez, program manager for small satellite missions in NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, said at a NASA public meeting at the conference on August 9. Artemis 1 should be launched at the earliest. November.

These aren’t the only cubesat missions planned for the moon over the next few years. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) is working on a cubesat mission called Lunar Volatile and Mineraology Mapping Orbiter, or VMMO, which recently completed a Phase A study funded by the European Space Agency.

VMMO will follow up on some of the previous cubesat missions to search for water ice deposits at the lunar south pole, Samantha Rowe, engineer at SSTL, told a conference on August 9. This is a 12 unit cubesat that will carry a lidar instrument designed to map any water ice at higher resolutions than cubesats flying on Artemis 1.

It will also be a demonstration of cubesat technology. “The mission itself will be a great opportunity to test the cubesat components in the lunar environment,” she said.

Rowe said SSTL hopes to launch VMMO in late 2023 or early 2024. While the company initially offered to fly it with Lunar Pathfinder, a lunar communications satellite it is developing, she said the company was considering other options. launch, such as flight as a secondary payload. on a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services lander mission.