August 13, 2022

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NASA launches Capstone, the 55-pound cube satellite on the Moon

NASA launches Capstone, the 55-pound cube satellite on the Moon

June 26, 2022: On Sunday, NASA announced at least a day delay in the CAPSTONE launch to allow more time for final systems checks. The article has been updated.

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

A giant rocket tops a capsule without astronauts around the moon and back, possibly before the end of summer. A parade of robotic landers will drop experiments on the moon to gather reams of scientific data, particularly about water ice trapped in the polar regions. A few years from now, astronauts will be back there, more than half a century after the last Apollo moon landing.

These are all part of NASA’s 21st Century Moon Program named after Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the twin sister of Apollo.

Once this week, a spacecraft called CAPSTONE will be launched as the first piece of Artemis heading to the moon. Compared to what to follow, it is modest in size and scope.

There will be no astronauts aboard CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is very small, roughly the size of a microwave oven. This robotic probe will not land on the moon.

But it differs in many ways from any previous moon mission. It could serve as a model for the public-private partnerships that NASA can undertake in the future to have a better impact on its interplanetary flights.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I’m not sure it’s been put together like that,” said Bradley Cheetham, CEO and president of Advanced Space, the company that runs the NASA mission.

The launch was scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, the launch was pushed back by at least one day to give Rocket Lab, American and New Zealand company That saves CAPSTONE’s flight into orbit, and more time for final system checks.

“Teams are evaluating weather and other factors to determine when the next launch attempt will be,” NASA said. In a blog post. “The next launch opportunity during the current period is on June 28.”

The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous GPS Technology Operations and Navigation Experience. It will serve as a lunar orbit explorer where a manned space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. This outpost, called the Gateway, will serve as a road station where future crews will stop before continuing to the lunar surface.

CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA in many ways. For example, it is located on a launch pad not in Florida but in New Zealand. Second, NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The agency doesn’t even own it. CAPSTONE belongs to Advanced Space, a company with 45 employees in suburban Denver.

The spacecraft is taking a slow but efficient path to the moon. There are daily launch opportunities until July 27. If the spacecraft has lifted off from Earth by then, no matter what day it takes off, it will reach orbit around the Moon on the same day: November 13.

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The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to collaborate in new ways with private companies in the hope of more quickly gaining additional capabilities at a lower cost.

“It’s another way for NASA to figure out what it needs to find out and lower the cost,” said Bill Nelson, Administrator of NASA.

The cost of the Advance Space contract with NASA for CAPSTONE, signed in 2019, is $20 million. CAPSTONE’s journey into space is small and cheap, too: just under $10 million to launch the Rocket Lab.

“It’s going to be less than $30 million in less than three years,” said Christopher Baker, executive director of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. “Relatively fast and relatively low cost.”

until Beresheet, a minimal effort by an Israeli non-profit organization to land on the moon In 2019, at a cost of $100 million.

“I see this as a guide for how we can help facilitate commercial missions beyond Earth,” said Mr. Baker.

Mr. Cheetham said CAPSTONE’s primary mission is to last six months, with the possibility of an additional year.

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

When President Donald J.

This prompted NASA to make a space station around the moon an essential part of how astronauts get to the lunar surface. Such a gradual location would make it easier for them to reach different parts of the moon.

Gateway will not use Artemis’ first landing mission, which is currently scheduled for 2025 but will likely be delayed. But subsequent missions will.

NASA has determined that the best place to place this outpost would be in what is known as the semi-straight Halo orbit.

The orbits of the corona are those that are affected by the gravity of two objects – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The two bodies’ impact helps make the orbit very stable, reducing the amount of fuel needed to keep the spacecraft orbiting around the moon.

Gravitational interactions also maintain the orbit at about a 90-degree angle when viewing the line of sight from Earth. (This is the semi-straight part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the Moon where communications will be cut off.

The orbit that the gate will travel is located about 2,200 miles from the moon’s north pole and orbits 44,000 miles as it passes over the south pole. One trip around the moon would take about a week.

In terms of basic mathematics, exotic paths such as the orbit of a halo near the straight are well understood. But this is also an orbit that no spacecraft has gone before.

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Thus, CAPSTONE.

“We think we have very distinct characteristics,” said Dan Hartmann, program director at Gateway. “But with the CAPSTONE payload set, we can help validate our models.”

In practice, without any GPS satellites around the moon for precise positioning, it can take some trial and error to figure out how best to keep the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

“The biggest uncertainty is knowing where you actually are,” said Mr. Cheetham. “You never really know where you are in space. So you always have an appreciation for where it is with some uncertainty around it.”

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE will triangulate its position estimate using Signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network from the radio dish antennas and then, if necessary, propels itself back towards the desired orbit after passing the farthest point from the Moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative way to find its location. It is unlikely that anyone would spend the time and expense to build a GPS network around the Moon. But there are other spacecraft, including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, orbiting the Moon, and more likely to arrive in the coming years. By communicating with each other, a fleet of spacecraft in disparate orbits can in essence create a custom Global Positioning System (GPS) system.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for more than seven years, and now it will test the concept with CAPSTONE to send signals back and forth using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “We will be able to locate both spacecraft over time,” said Mr. Cheatham.

When I started developing CAPSTONE, Advanced Space also decided to add a computer chip scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compare that time with that being broadcast from Earth. This data can also help determine the location of the spacecraft.

Since Advanced Space owns CAPSTONE, it had the flexibility to make this change without permission from NASA. And while the agency still collaborates closely on such projects, this flexibility could be a boon to both private companies such as Advanced Space and NASA.

“Because we had a commercial contract with our vendors, when we needed to change something, we didn’t have to go through a major audit of government contracting officials,” said Mr. Cheetham. “It helped from a speed perspective.”

The flip side is that because Advanced Space had negotiated a flat fee for the mission, the company was unable to go to NASA to request additional funds (even though it received additional payments due to supply chain delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic). More traditional NASA contracts known as “cost surcharge” pay companies for what they spend and then add fees – received as profits – on top of that, providing little incentive for them to keep costs in check.

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“As things turned out, we had to figure out how to handle it very efficiently,” said Mr. Cheetham.

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed-price contracts with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, which now transports cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station at a much lower cost than the agency’s previous space shuttles. For SpaceX, NASA investments have enabled it to attract non-NASA clients interested in launching payloads and private astronauts into orbit.

Until CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s work was mostly theoretical — analyzing orbits and writing programs for custom GPS — rather than building and operating spacecraft.

The company still isn’t actually in the business of building spacecraft. “We bought the spacecraft,” said Mr. Cheetham. “I tell people that the only machines we build here at Advanced are Legos. We have a huge collection of Lego.”

In the past two decades, Small satellites known as CubeSats have proliferated, enabling more companies to quickly build spacecraft based on a standardized design with each cube measuring 10 centimeters or four inches. CAPSTONE is among the largest, with a volume of 12 cubes, but Advanced Space was able to purchase it, roughly speaking, from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems in Irvine, California.

This still requires a lot of problem solving. for example, Most CubeSats In low Earth orbit, a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is nearly a quarter of a million miles away.

“No one has ever flown with cupsat on the moon,” said Mr. Cheetham. “So it makes sense that no one has built radios to fly CubeSats to the moon. And so we had to really dive into a lot of these details and actually engage with a bunch of different people to get the systems that could work.”

Mr. Hartmann, director of the Gateway Program, is excited about CAPSTONE but says it is not necessary to move forward with the lunar outpost. NASA has already awarded contracts to build the first two Gateway units. ESA also contributes to two units.

“Can we fly without it?” Mr. Hartmann said about CAPSTONE. “Yes. Is it mandatory? No.”

But he added, “Anytime you can reduce error bars on your models is always a good thing.”

Mr. Cheetham is considering what could come next, perhaps more missions to the Moon, either for NASA or other commercial partners. He also thinks further than that.

“I’m very fascinated by the thought of how we can do something similar to Mars,” he said. “I am personally very interested in Venus as well. I think he is not getting enough attention.”