NASA to send microwave oven-sized CubeSat to unique lunar orbit

NASA is aiming towards returning mankind to the Moon. The space agency plans on landing American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the Moon by 2024 through its Artemis mission. Now, in a key step towards this direction, the agency has recently given a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space, an engineering services company based in Boulder, Colorado, for developing and operating a lunar orbital CubeSat mission that will be launched as early as December 2020.

The CubeSat mission which is called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), is going to be what NASA calls a “pathfinder mission” for the Gateway – an orbiting outpost that astronauts will visit before descending to the surface of the Moon.

The CAPSTONE, which is approximately the size of a small microwave oven, is expected to be the first-ever spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, NASA said in a statement. In this particular orbit, the agency said that the CubeSat will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the surface of the Moon.

The CAPSTONE will be demonstrating on how to enter into and operate in this unique orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This particular information will help in reducing the logistical uncertainty for Gateway while ensuring that NASA and international partners have a safe access to the surface of the Moon. This will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

“This mission is highly ambitious in both cost and schedule – and taking that deliberate risk is part of the objective of this mission – alongside the rapid technological advancement in cislunar navigation and the opportunity to verify orbital trajectory assumptions and retire unknowns for future missions.” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate said in the statement.

After its launch in 2020, CAPSTONE will be taking nearly three months to enter its target orbit and begin a six-month primary demonstration phase to understand operations in this unique regime. It will provide NASA and its partners with important insights to support the exploration of the Moon and Mars, including demonstration of spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation services, verification of near rectilinear halo orbit characteristics for future spacecraft, experience entering this orbit with a highly efficient lunar transfer and more.