NASA to launch Capstone, 55-pound CubeSat to the Moon

In the coming years, NASA will be busy on the moon.

The giant rocket will lift a capsule without astronauts around the moon and back, possibly before the end of the summer. A parade of robotic landers will send experiments to the moon to gather a wealth of scientific data, especially on water ice trapped in the polar regions. Astronauts will return there in a few years, more than half a century since the last Apollo landing on the moon.

It’s all part of NASA’s 21st century lunar program, named after Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the twin sister of Apollo.

Early Monday morning, the CAPSTONE spacecraft is scheduled to launch as the first piece of Artemis to travel to the moon. Compared to what follows, it is modest in size and scope.

There will be no astronauts aboard CAPSTONE. The spaceship is too small, about the size of a microwave oven. This robotic probe won’t even land on the moon.

But it is in many ways different from any previous mission to the moon. This could serve as a model for public-private partnerships that NASA could organize in the future to get higher returns on interplanetary travel.

“NASA has flown to the moon before, but I’m not sure it’s ever been put together that way,” said Bradley Cheetham, chief executive and president of Advanced Space, the company that manages NASA’s mission.

Launch lighting will begin at 5 am ET Monday on NASA TV. The rocket must take off exactly at 5:50 am in order for the spacecraft to get on the correct trajectory.

The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous System Positioning Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will act as a scout in lunar orbit, where a manned space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. This outpost, named the Gateway, will serve as a way station where future crews will stop before continuing on their journey to the lunar surface.

CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA for several reasons. Firstly, it is located on the launch site not in Florida, but in New Zealand. Second, NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE and will not operate it. The agency doesn’t even own it. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company located on the outskirts of Denver.

The spacecraft follows a slow but efficient trajectory to the Moon and arrives on the Moon on November 11th. 13. If, due to weather or a technical problem, the rocket misses this instant launch moment, there is an additional chance until July 27th. 13.

The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to develop new partnerships with private companies in the hope of getting additional capabilities faster at a lower cost.

“This is another way for NASA to figure out what it needs and keep costs down,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator.

The Advance Space contract with NASA for CAPSTONE, signed in 2019, cost $20 million. The trip to space for CAPSTONE is also small and cheap: just under $10 million per launch. Rocket Lab, US-New Zealand company it is a leader in delivering small payloads into orbit.

“In less than three years, that would be less than $30 million,” said Christopher Baker, program manager for small spacecraft technology at NASA. “Relatively fast and relatively inexpensive.”

“I see this as a trailblazer for how we can help facilitate off-Earth commercial missions.” Baker said.

The main mission of CAPSTONE is to last six months with the possibility of an additional year, dr. Cheetham said.

The collected data will help the planners of the lunar outpost known as the Gateway.

When President Donald J. Trump declared in 2017 that the top priority of his administration’s space policy was to send astronauts back to the Moon, “reusable” and “sustainable development” were the buzzwords at NASA.

This prompted NASA to make the space station around the Moon a key element of how astronauts would get to the lunar surface. Such an intermediate platform would facilitate their access to various parts of the Moon.

The first Artemis amphibious mission, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to be rescheduled, will not use the Gateway. But there will be subsequent missions.

NASA decided that the best location for this outpost would be the so-called near-rectilinear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are those that are affected by the gravity of two bodies—in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The two-body influence helps make the orbit very stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to keep a spacecraft around the Moon.

Gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees to the line of sight from Earth. (That’s almost the straight-line part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes beyond the Moon, where communication would be interrupted.

The orbit that the Gateway will follow is about 2,200 miles from the Moon’s North Pole and loops 44,000 miles when it passes over the South Pole. One flight around the moon will take about a week.

In terms of the underlying mathematics, exotic trajectories such as the near-rectilinear halo orbit are well understood. But it’s also an orbit that no spacecraft has flown before.

Thus, CAPSTONE.

“We think we’ve summed it up very, very well,” said Dan Hartman, program manager at Gateway. “But with this particular CAPSTONE payload, we can help validate our models.”

In practice, without any GPS satellites around the Moon, it may take trial and error to determine the exact location to figure out how best to keep the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

“The biggest uncertainty is knowing where you are,” the doctor says. Cheetham said. “In space, you never know where you are. So you always have an estimate of where it is, with some uncertainty.”

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE will triangulate its position estimate using signals from the NASA Deep Space Network parabolic radio antennas, and then, if necessary, push yourself back into the desired orbit just after passing the farthest point from the Moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method of determining its location. It is unlikely that anyone would spend the time and money building a GPS network around the Moon. But there are other spacecraft, including NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, revolving around the Moon, and is likely to arrive in the coming years. By interacting with each other, a fleet of spacecraft in different orbits could, in fact, create a special GPS.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for over seven years and will now be testing the concept with CAPSTONE, sending signals back and forth with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “Over time, we will be able to determine where both spacecraft are,” says the doctor. Cheetham said.

When developing CAPSTONE, Advanced Space also decided to add an atomic clock the size of a computer chip to the spacecraft and compare this time with what is broadcast from Earth. This data could also help pinpoint the location of the spacecraft.

Because Advanced Space owns CAPSTONE, it had the ability to make this change without obtaining permission from NASA. And while the agency continues to work closely on such projects, this flexibility can be a boon for both private companies like Advanced Space and NASA.

“Because we had a commercial contract with our suppliers, when we needed to change something, we didn’t have to go through a lot of verification from government customers,” the doctor said. Cheetham said. “It helped in terms of speed.”

The downside is that since Advanced Space negotiated a fixed fee for the mission, the company could not approach NASA for more money (although it received additional payments due to supply chain delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic). More traditional NASA contracts, known as “cost plus,” reimburse companies for what they spend and then add a commission earned as profits on top of that, giving them little incentive to keep costs under control.

“As situations arose, we had to figure out how to deal with them very effectively,” the doctor said. Cheetham said.

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed-price contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which now ferries cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station at a much lower cost than the agency’s own space shuttles once did. For SpaceX, NASA’s investment has attracted non-NASA clients interested in launching payloads and private astronauts into orbit.

Prior to CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s work was mostly theoretical—analyzing orbits and writing software for dedicated GPS, rather than building and operating spacecraft.

The company is still not engaged in space shipbuilding. “We bought a spaceship,” the doctor says. Cheetham said. “I tell people that the only equipment we make here at Advanced is Lego. We have a great Lego collection.”

In the last couple of decades, tiny satellites known as CubeSats have become widespread, allowing more companies to rapidly build spacecraft based on a standardized design in which each cube measures 10 centimeters, or four inches. CAPSTONE is one of the largest, at 12 cubic meters, but Advanced Space was able to buy it almost ready-made from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, California.

It still required solving many problems. For example, most cubesats are in low Earth orbit, only a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is almost a quarter of a million miles away.

“No one has launched a CubeSat to the moon,” says the doctor. Cheetham said. “So it makes sense that nobody built radios to launch the CubeSat to the Moon. And so we had to really dive in to understand a lot of those details, and actually collaborate with a few different people to have systems that could work.”

mr. Hartman, the Gateway program manager, is enthused about CAPSTONE but says there’s no need to move forward with the lunar outpost. NASA has already awarded contracts to build the first two Gateway modules. The European Space Agency also provides two modules.

“Can we fly without it?” mr. Hartman talked about CAPSTONE. “Yes. Is it necessary? No.”

But he added: “Any time you can reduce the error bars in your models, that’s always a good thing.”

Dr. Cheetham thinks about what might happen next, perhaps new moon missions, either for NASA or other commercial partners. He also thinks further.

“I’m very intrigued by the thought of how we could do something similar on Mars,” he said. “In fact, personally I am very interested in Venus. I think it’s not getting the attention it deserves.”