Completion of CAPSTONE ‘s primary mission

NASA's CAPSTONE cubesat concludes its primary mission, which involved testing all the onboard technology around the Moon
NASA’s CAPSTONE Cubesat, built and operated by Colorado-based company Advanced Space, captured this photo of the moon on May 3, 2023. It is the cubesat’s first lunar image. Credit:

The tiny NASA cubesat, CAPSTONE, has concluded its mission by capturing the first images of the Moon. CAPSTONE, built by Terran Orbital and operated by Advanced Space. It was designed to lay the groundwork for the future Lunar Gateway space station as part of the ambitious Artemis program.

The CAPSTONE Cubesat

CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) is testing a unique orbit around our satellite known as Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), which will be occupied by the future Gateway station. NRHO’s highly elliptical orbit is in a precise balance point between Earth‘s and the Moon’s gravity, offering numerous advantages such as low energy requirements for maintenance and long-term stability for stationary outposts like the Lunar Gateway.

CAPSTONE completes one full orbit every 7 days. It approaches within 17,700 kilometers of one lunar pole and then reaches 70,000 kilometers from the other pole. The microwave-sized satellite captured the lunar surface for the first time on May 3rd as it passed near the north pole.

Six days later, the CAPSTONE team initiated a mission to test a navigation technology similar to GPS called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS). During the test, CAPSTONE collaborated with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2009. The cubesat transmitted a signal to LRO, which bounced it back to the tiny spacecraft, allowing for the calculation of the relative velocity and position of the two objects.

Results of the Test

“The test demonstrated the capability to gather measurements that will be used by the CAPS software to determine the positioning of both spacecraft” NASA officials wrote in an update last week (ref.). “This capability could provide autonomous onboard navigation information for future lunar missions”.

The test, concluded on May 9th, took place a few days before CAPSTONE’s sixth month in lunar orbit. On May 13th, the cubesat officially completed its primary mission. However, the experiment shows how CAPSTONE can still contribute to NASA’s efforts in the future. The agency states that CAPSTONE’s current “enhanced mission phase” will last approximately one year. Throughout 2023, the spacecraft will continue to test its onboard technology.

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