NASA launches a CubeSat that will test the orbit of the future Gateway lunar station

Recreation of the CAPSTONE satellite in lunar orbit. / NASA/Daniel Rutter

Science | Space

CAPSTONE "is laying the groundwork for Artemis, Gateway and commercial support for future lunar operations"

NASA today launched a microwave-sized CubeSat to test the future Gateway Station's orbit around the Moon. The 25-kilogram CAPSTONE (for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technological Operations and Navigation Experiment) took off at 11:55 a.m. from the Rocket Lab company's Launch Complex on the Mahia Peninsula (New Zealand), in an Electron launcher.

The satellite is currently in low orbit, attached to a third stage of the rocket that will take it to the Moon. Over six days, the launcher's third stage will accelerate to release the CubeSat following a trajectory, called ballistic lunar transfer (BLT), that will allow the satellite to make the trip with minimal energy expenditure using the Sun's gravity. Within four months , CAPSTONE will reach its destination.

It will then enter a so-called near-straight halo orbit (NRHO), which will take it as close as 3,400 kilometers from the lunar north pole at its closest and 76,000 kilometers from the south at its furthest. The CubeSat will complete an orbit every six and a half days, and will remain operational for at least six months. One of the advantages of the NRHO is that it offers stability for long-term missions and requires minimal energy to maintain.

the return to the moon

“CAPSTONE is an explorer in many ways. He will demonstrate various technological capabilities during his mission, while navigating in a never-before-tested orbit around the Moon," said Elwood Agasid, project manager at NASA Ames Research Center. The minisatellite, he added, "is laying the groundwork for Artemis, Gateway and commercial support for future lunar operations."

The CAPSTONE rocket fires its engines on the Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. /

NASA TV

Gateway is the lunar station from which the first humans to set foot on it since December 1972 will descend to the satellite, two astronauts from the Artemis 3 mission "not before 2025". The construction of the platform is led by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese (JAXA) and the Canadian (CSA) participate in it. According to the current schedule, the first module of the station will be launched in 2024 and a year later it will be used for the first time as a link to the Moon.

Last week, the rocket of the first mission of the Artemis program
passed the so-called wet dress rehearsal, refueling and countdown test. Artemisa 1 will be the first joint test of the new Space Launch System (SLS) – made up of a rocket and two thrusters – and the Orion capsule, in whose construction ESA is participating. Liftoff will take place, at the earliest, at the end of July.

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