After a journey of nearly five months, taking it far beyond the Moon and back, the little spaceship successfully entered the lunar orbit.
“We’ve confirmed that CAPSTONE has reached a nearly straight-line halo orbit, and that’s a huge, huge step for the agency,” NASA’s chief of exploration systems development, Jim Free, said on Sunday evening. “It just made its first insertion a few minutes ago. And over the next few days, they will continue to clean up its orbit, and be the first to fly and operate on the Moon.”
This orbit is very important to NASA, and it is special because it is really stable, requiring only a small amount of propellant to get it in place. At its closest point to the Moon, this approximately eight-year orbit passes within 3,000 km of the lunar surface, and at other points it is 70,000 km away. NASA plans to build a small spacecraft, called the Moon Gateway, here later this decade.
But before that, let’s take a look at the big game. CAPSTONE is a scrappy commercial mission that was partially funded by a $13.7 million NASA grant. Developed by a Colorado-based company called Advanced Space, with the help of Terran Orbital, the spacecraft itself is moderately sized, only a 12U cubesat with a mass of 25 kg. It could be conveniently placed inside a mini-refrigerator.
The ship was launched at the end of June on an electronic rocket from New Zealand. The Electron rocket is the smallest to send a payload to the Moon, and its device, the Rocket Lab, has the capabilities to run and send a photon of the highest level to the largest to send the CAPSTONE on a long journey to the Moon. This was the first mission of the Space Rocket Lab.
After detaching from its rocket, it spent nearly five space months traveling to the Moon, following what is known as a lunar ballistic transfer that uses the Sun’s gravity to follow an expansive trajectory. On the way, the flight controller to solve the task of the rock, which could otherwise cause a loss of space. This was a round trip that spanned more than three times the space between the Earth and the Moon, but required relatively little propulsion to reach the destination.
For example, the firing from the CAPSTONE on Sunday evening was extremely minute for the transit in a near rectilinear orbit. According to Advanced Space, the vehicle burned its intruder for 16 minutes with about 0.44 Newtons, which is equivalent to the weight of about nine pounds of standard printer paper.
CAPSTONE on this new planet will not only be a track – verifying the theoretical properties that NASA engineers are simulating – it will also demonstrate a new type of autonomous navigation around and near the Moon. This Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is important because there is a lack of fixed assets at the Moon, especially as the cislunar environment becomes denser in the next decade.
The mission is planned to operate in this orbit for at least six months.
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