Nasa on Tuesday launched a microwave oven-sized CubeSat to the Moon, which has set in motion its Artemis program that aims to return humans to the lunar surface.
Dubbed Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) was launched on top of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand.
The capstone mission lifted off after a day’s delay to ensure final checks on the system. The spacecraft is on its way to the Moon where the Capstone mission will be deployed after reaching the lunar orbit in November this year.
It will serve as the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit and act as a pathfinder for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost part of the Artemis program. Capstone will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this unique, halo-shaped orbit.
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The orbit, formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) is significantly elongated. Its location at a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon offers stability for long-term missions like Gateway and requires minimal energy to maintain.
The spacecraft will use a dedicated payload flight computer and radio to perform calculations to determine where the CubeSat is in its orbital path and use the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), hovering above Moon since 2009, as its reference point. The intention is for CAPSTONE to communicate directly with LRO and utilize the data obtained from this crosslink to measure how far it is from LRO and how fast the distance between the two changes, which in turn determines CAPSTONE’s position in space.