A year after its launch, NASA’s privately owned and funded Cubesat lunar orbiter is still doing well, providing data to support the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration efforts.
The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft, owned by Colorado startup Advanced Space, began its journey to the Moon last July after being launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. After overcoming communications and propulsion problems, the spacecraft entered a near straight halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon in November.
CAPSTONE completed an initial six-month mission in that orbit and is now on a “boost” mission scheduled to last at least a year. “For us, the Enhanced Mission is just focused on more automation experiments and trying to collect more data,” Brad Cheetham, CEO of Advanced Space, said in an interview. “We can try some new things. We can push the envelope.”
The spacecraft has been doing well, with only minor technical issues, since its arrival on the moon. “We went through a lot of challenges to get to the moon,” he said. “Once we got there, we settled into an operational cadence, which really helped provide a lot of the analysis that the Gateway team at Johnson Space Center and others are doing to learn how to operate there.”
NASA funded the development of CAPSTONE for the NRHO stability test, which will be used by the Lunar Gateway to be developed by the agency and international partners over the course of several Artemis missions. This included insights into how to perform station-keeping maneuvers to maintain orbit and how to perform navigation.
Cheetham described his company’s relationship with NASA’s Gateway program as “extraordinary”, which predated the development of CAPSTONE. “The teamwork between Gateway’s analysis and CAPSTONE planning has been almost seamless,” he said, sharing information that supported Gateway planning and CAPSTONE operations. “It was back and forth almost like one team.”
Advanced Space has also used CAPSTONE to test autonomous navigation technologies. After several attempts, the spacecraft established a mesh link with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and tested the “CAPS” part of the mission’s name. They also used an atomic clock in the form of a chip on the cubes to determine their location using timing information from their associated signals from ground stations.
The CAPSTONE Advanced Space Experiment will assist with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s next Oracle spacecraft mission. The company won a $72 million contract from AFRL in November 2022 to develop a smallsat, formerly known as the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, to monitor lunar space and demonstrate positioning and navigation technologies beyond Earth orbit.
“We know what these systems can do and where they might run into problems,” he said, allowing the company to focus on new aspects of the mission. “We’ll really be able to bring our attention to new things that are different from CAPSTONE or things that are potentially more difficult.”
Advanced Space, along with CAPSTONE operation and Oracle development, announced that it is supporting ESCAPADE, a small NASA mission to study the interaction of Mars with the solar wind, with mission design and navigation. It is also part of a Draper-led team that won a NASA Lunar Payload Services commercial award for landing a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.
Meanwhile, CAPSTONE may work after the enhanced mission for one year. The main concern, Cheetham said, is the effects of radiation on the spacecraft’s electronics, especially as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle. Cubesat’s fail-safe systems have recovered from several radiation-induced disruptions to date, but it is uncertain how much of a total dose these systems could receive before they decay.
He added that motivation is not a concern. “We have a lot of Delta-V margin and we’ve been very efficient in how we deploy it,” he said. “As an orbital mechanics-led and operated mission, we have plenty of fuel. We’re not going to run out of fuel in the program.”
“Unapologetic reader. Social media maven. Beer lover. Food fanatic. Zombie advocate. Bacon aficionado. Web practitioner.”