Science and Tech

CAPSTONE begins its journey to the Moon

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CAPSTONE, a NASA CubeSat designed to test a special lunar orbit, is safely in space and embarking on the first phase of its journey to the Moon. The spacecraft is headed for an orbit that will eventually host Gateway, a lunar space station built by the agency and its commercial and international partners that will help deliver NASA’s Artemis program, including astronaut missions.

CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment), a microwave oven-sized CubeSat, was launched into space on June 28, 2022, by a Rocket Lab Electron rocket, from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

CAPSTONE will take about four months to reach the desired lunar orbit.

NASA invites the public to follow the spacecraft’s journey live through NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System interactive real-time 3D data visualization, choosing the spacecraft from among those offered on the menu, in this link. Starting a week after launch, it will be possible to travel virtually with the CubeSat, showing a simulated panorama of our solar system.

At this time, CAPSTONE is still docked with Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon, a third interplanetary stage that will propel CAPSTONE toward its target. Shortly after launch, Lunar Photon was separated from the second stage of Electron.

Launch of CAPSTONE into space. (Photo: Rocket Lab)

Over the next several days, Photon’s engine will fire periodically to accelerate CAPSTONE past low Earth orbit, where Photon will release CubeSat on a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory toward the Moon. CAPSTONE will then use its own propulsion and the Sun’s gravity to travel the rest of the way to the Moon. The gravity-driven trajectory will drastically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to reach the Moon.

On the Moon, CAPSTONE will enter a special elongated orbit. Once settled in that orbit, CAPSTONE will fly less than 1,600 kilometers from the North Pole of the Moon at its closest approach to the lunar surface and about 70,000 kilometers from the South Pole at its closest distance. It will repeat the cycle every six and a half days and maintain this orbit for at least six months to study orbital dynamics. (Font: NCYT by Amazings)

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