NASA will launch a 55-pound CubeSat Capstone on the moon

NASA will be busy on the moon in the coming years.

The giant rocket will push the capsule around the moon and back without astronauts, possibly by the end of the summer. The robot landing parade will conduct experiments on the moon to collect scientific data, especially about water ice trapped in the polar regions. A few years after the astronauts had to return there, more than half a century had passed since the last landing of Apollo.

All of this is part of NASA’s 21st century lunar program called Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the twin sister of Apollo.

On Monday, the spacecraft, named CAPSTONE, is scheduled to launch as the first piece of Artemis to travel to the moon. Compared to what follows, it is modest in size and volume.

There will be no astronauts on CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is very small, about the size of a microwave oven. This robot probe will not even land on the moon.

But in many ways it does not resemble the previous mission to the moon. It could become a template for public-private partnerships that NASA could implement in the future to make better use of its money on interplanetary travel.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I’m not sure it was ever created that way,” said Bradley Chitham, CEO and president of Advanced Space, the company that manages the NASA mission.

Launch coverage will begin on NASA Television on Monday at 5 a.m. Eastern Time. The rocket must be launched at the exact moment, at 5:50 a.m., in order for the spacecraft to land in the correct trajectory.

The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. He will act as a lunar orbiter, where he will eventually build a space station for the crew as part of Artemis. This outpost, named Gateway, will be a road station where future crews will stop before crossing the lunar surface.

CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA in several ways. For one, he sits at a checkpoint not in Florida but in New Zealand. Secondly, NASA has not created or built CAPSTONE nor will it work. The agency does not even own it. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company in the Denver suburbs.

The spacecraft goes in a slow but effective trajectory to the moon and arrives on November 13th. If the weather or technical problem causes the rocket to miss an instant launch moment, there are additional chances until July 27th. If the spacecraft arrives by this time it will hit lunar orbit again on the same day: November 13th.

The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to work with private companies in new ways in the hope of gaining additional opportunities more quickly at a lower cost.

“Another way for NASA is to figure out what to look for and reduce costs,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator.

Advance Space contract with NASA for CAPSTONE, signed in 2019, cost $ 20 million. CAPSTONE space travel is also small and cheap: for just under $ 10 million for launch by Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand company that is a leader in small cargo orbit delivery.

“It’s going to be less than $ 30 million in three years,” said Christopher Baker, executive director of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. “Relatively fast and relatively low cost.”

“I see this as a guide to how we can facilitate commercial missions beyond Earth,” Mr. Baker said.

CAPSTONE’s core mission will last for six months, with an additional one year, Dr. Chitham said.

His collected data will help the planners of the lunar outpost, known as the Gate.

When President Donald J. Trump said in 2017 that the top priority of his administration’s space policy was to return astronauts to the moon, with NASA saying the words were “reusable” and “sustainable.”

This prompted NASA to create a space station around the moon, a key element in how astronauts landed on the lunar surface. The location of such an erection would make it easier for them to reach different parts of the moon.

The first Artemis landing mission, currently scheduled for 2025 but likely to retreat, will not use the Gateway. But there will be further missions.

NASA decided that the best place to place this outpost would be what is known as an almost linear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are the effects of gravity on two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The impact of the two bodies makes the orbit extremely stable, minimizing the amount of engine needed to maintain the spacecraft’s rotation on the moon.

Gravitational interactions also maintain orbit at an angle of approximately 90 degrees from the Earth to the line of sight. (This is an almost linear part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications will be interrupted.

The orbit passed by the gateway is about 2,200 miles from the moon’s north pole and moves 44,000 miles as it moves to the south pole. One trip around the moon will take about a week.

In terms of basic mathematics, exotic trajectories such as the almost linear halo orbit are well understood. But it is also an orbit where no spacecraft has ever sailed.

Thus, CAPSTONE.

“We think we have it very, very well characterized,” said Dan Hartmann, Gateway Program Manager. “But with this particular CAPSTONE load, we can help you validate our models.”

In practice, to determine the exact locations without satellites of the global positioning system around the moon, it may take some trial and error to figure out how to keep the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

“The biggest uncertainty is actually knowing where you are,” said Dr. Chitham. “You never know where you are in space. So you always have an assessment of where he is, with some uncertainty around him.

Like other NASA missions, the CAPSTONE triangle will assess its position using NASA deep space network radio antenna signals and then, if necessary, retreat to its desired orbit after passing the farthest point of the moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method of finding its position. It is unlikely that anyone would spend the time and money to build a GPS network around the moon. But there are other spacecraft, including NASA’s lunar reconnaissance orbiter, that are orbiting the moon and are likely to arrive more in the coming years. By communicating with each other, a fleet of spacecraft in a different orbit could essentially create an ad hoc GPS.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for over seven years and now it is testing the concept with CAPSTONE, which sends signals back and forth to the lunar reconnaissance orbiter. “We will be able to determine where both spacecraft are over time,” said Dr. Chitham.

As the development of CAPSTONE began, Advanced Space also decided to add a computer chip-scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compared that time to that emitted from Earth. This data will also help you determine the location of the spacecraft.

Because Advanced Space owns CAPSTONE, it had the flexibility to make this change without obtaining permission from NASA. And while the agency is still working closely on such projects, that flexibility can be a boon for both private companies like Advanced Space and NASA.

“Because we had a commercial contract with our vendors, when we needed to change something, it was not necessary to go through a large review of government contract officials,” Dr. Chitham said. “It helped in terms of speed.”

The other side is that because Advanced Space negotiated a fixed fee for the mission, the company could not go to NASA to request additional funding (although it did receive additional payments due to a supply chain disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic). NASA’s more traditional contracts, known as “cost-plus”, reimburse companies for the costs they incur and then add a commission – in the form of earned profits – in addition to giving them little incentive to control costs.

“As things stand, we need to understand how to deal with them very effectively,” said Dr. Chitham.

It resembles NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed price contracts with Elon Musk with SpaceX, which now carries cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station at a much lower price than the agency did on its own space shuttles. NASA’s investment in SpaceX has allowed it to attract non-NASA users interested in launching cargo and private astronauts into orbit.

Prior to CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s work was largely theoretical – analyzing orbits and recording software for its ad hoc GPS – rather than building and operating a spacecraft.

The company is not yet in the spacecraft construction business. “We bought a spaceship,” said Dr. Chitham. “I’m telling people that the only hardware we’re building here at Advanced is Legos. We have an excellent collection of Lego.

Over the past few decades, tiny satellites known as CubeSats have proliferated, allowing more companies to quickly build a spacecraft based on a standardized design in which each cube is 10 centimeters or four inches in size. CAPSTONE is one of the largest, with a capacity of 12 cubes, but Advanced Space was able to buy it, almost on the shelf, from the Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, Calif.

This still required solving many problems. For example, most CubeSats are in low Earth orbit, only a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is almost a quarter of a million miles away.

“No one flies on the CubeSat moon,” said Dr. Chitham. “So it’s logical that no one has built radios for CubeSats to fly to the moon. So we really had to sink in to understand a lot of these details and actually collaborate with a few different people to have a system that could work. ”

Mr. Hartmann, Gateway Program Manager, is excited about CAPSTONE but says it is not necessary to move forward with the Moon Outpost. NASA has already signed contracts to build the first two modules of the Gateway. The European Space Agency also participates in two modules.

“Can we fly without him?” Mr. Hartmann said on CAPSTONE. “Yes. Is it mandatory? No. “

But he added: “Any time you can reduce the error lines in your models is always good.”

Dr. Chitham is thinking about what might follow, perhaps more missions to the moon, to NASA or to other commercial partners. He also thinks further.

“I’m very interested in thinking about how we can do this kind of thing on Mars,” he said. “I’m really interested in Venus personally. I think this is not getting enough attention. “

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