NASA Launches Craft Into Uncharted Orbits At Lunar Outposts

NASA is preparing to send a small satellite on an uncharted path around the moon that could one day serve as an orbital home for astronauts from a planned lunar space station known as Gateway. 

The Cislunar Autonomous GPS Technology Navigation and Operations Experiment (CAPSTONE), a microwave-sized spacecraft built by Advanced Space, is scheduled to launch into space from New Zealand on Monday, June 6. 

If all goes according to plan, it will be the first spacecraft to conduct a test drive in an area known as a near-rectangular coronal orbit (NRHO), a strange path around the moon sculpted by the gravity of Earth, the Moon, the Sun. Sun and even Jupiter. The space extended orbit had a major impact on the Artemis program, a massive NASA-led effort aimed at returning humans to the lunar surface in the decade after the debut of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin more than 20 years ago. 50 years. Foot to the world outside the planet Earth. 

There is now a CAPSTONE team that includes private space companies Advanced Space, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, and Stellar Exploration, Inc. And Rocket Lab: the first small step toward the giant leap Artemis envisioned. In addition to flying into this mysterious orbit, the mission will lead to a next-generation communications platform that could greatly simplify deep space exploration. 

Justin Treptow, assistant secretary for the Small Space Technology Program (SSTP) in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, on a call. “But doing it out there is something else entirely.”

“Ultimately, CAPSTONE is a flight test,” SSTP executive Christopher Baker added on the same call. “The role of flight testing is to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, and this is what we are preparing for here. I am looking forward to transferring that theoretical knowledge to practical operational experience.”

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While the historic Apollo mission to the Moon puts astronauts on the lunar surface for several days, the Artemis team hopes to send a crew to the moon’s enigmatic Antarctica to stay for weeks or months. An integral part of this vision, the Gateway will serve as a base for astronauts and cargo, as well as the ultimate springboard for missions that may venture to more distant destinations in deep space, such as Mars.  

Ideally, the portal would require an undisturbed view of Earth to allow continuous communication, the path of manned work at the Moon’s south pole, and relatively simple orbital processing. This is where NRHO comes in. 

Treptow said, “With NRHO, we will soon be able to see CAPSTONE’s full orbital path from the Earth’s surface, and eventually we will see the Gateway.” “The continuous, undisturbed view of the spacecraft orbiting the moon allows you to continuously communicate with the spacecraft in its orbit. This is very useful when conducting missions there to support astronauts.” 

Additionally, this highly elliptical orbit tracks a seven-day circle around the moon that extends about 43,500 miles up to one of the south poles. Both CAPSTONE and Gateway will follow routes designed for distant passages through Antarctica, increasing the time the spacecraft spends in these key areas for future Artemis crews. 

As Treptow explained, “there are two places in space between orbiting objects that have unique properties.” “When [NRHO] is balancing the gravity of the moon and the gravity of the Earth, at least if it’s a ballistic missile, it doesn’t need a huge amount of thrust to catch it in that orbit. It’s a trajectory. It absorbs less power, so you can send more spacecraft or use less fuel and be more efficient.” 

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All of these features make NRHO an interesting location for the space station, but before the astronauts embark on their adventures, there are many unanswered questions about this uncharted world that need to be answered. CAPSTONE has been tasked with providing this photorealistic scan and hopes to achieve it after it launches on Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle. 

Once in space, CAPSTONE uses the sun’s gravity to perform a series of ingenious maneuvers, including gradually rising to the desired height. The satellite is designed to feel like it passes the NRHO for at least six months, maybe a year or two, before deliberately hitting the lunar surface at the end of its mission.

“Operationally, no one was sent to NHRO,” Treptow said, “so the gateway operations team will be very interested in how well the spacecraft can determine its orbit.” “Since there are so many small forces acting on it, knowing exactly where you are and the direction you are going (position and speed) is very important to staying on the NRHO path and not falling off. The bigger it is , the longer it is. can live in this orbit.”

In addition to paving the way for gateways, CAPSTONE also has a technology demo called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS) that tests software that locates satellites in space without relying on tracking stations on Earth. This is part of an effort by NASA and other organizations to develop autonomous navigation systems that could revolutionize communications for deep space missions beyond Earth.

“This mission is what we’ve been working on here for two and a half years,'” Becker said. “Partnering with a business partner in this field was fast-paced and risky work. And it took us two weeks to see it work.”

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“I hope to learn from him as much as possible,” he concluded.

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