NASA’s CAPSTONE is now flying to the moon

Conceptual image of CAPSTONE in orbit around the moon.

Conceptual image of CAPSTONE in orbit around the moon.
picture: NASA

A major milestone has been reached in the newly launched CAPSTONE mission, as the tiny probe, traveling at over 24,000 miles per hour, left low Earth orbit and began its four-month journey to the Moon.

CAPSTONE, short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, said goodbye to low Earth orbit this morning, according to to NASA. The 55-pound (25-kilogram) CubeSat is now traveling to the Moon, where it will enter near-straight-line halo orbit (NRHO) on November 13.

This is the same orbit planned for the upcoming Lunar Gateway; the new mission should evaluate the suitability of NRHO on a smaller scale. Once built and part of NASA Artemis programLunar Gateway will be used to support a long-term and sustained human presence on and around the moon.

KEYSTONE started from New Zealand on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on June 28th. The CubeSat had orbited the Earth while attached to Rocket Lab’s Photon upper stage. A total of seven maneuvers were carried out within six days, in which CAPSTONE’s orbit was steadily raised. CAPSTONE eventually reached a maximum distance of 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Earth, which is more than three times the Earth-Moon distance. Photon deployed its payload once the pair reached 24,500 miles per hour (39,500 km/h) – the speed it took CAPSTONE to deplane from Earth orbit.

NASA’s CAPSTONE: Flying a new path to the moon

CAPSTONE is now on a lunar ballistic transfer orbit to the Moon, a tortuous — but efficient — trajectory that NASA says the probe will follow “dynamic gravitational contours in space.” explained:

Using little energy, CAPSTONE will fly along these contours, which will be punctuated by a series of planned trajectory correction maneuvers. At critical moments, CAPSTONE’s team at Advanced Space’s Mission Operations Center will command the spacecraft to fire its engines to adjust course. Terran Orbital Corporation of Irvine, California designed and built CAPSTONE and developed novel technology that allows the spacecraft to perform maneuvers while maintaining control of the spacecraft using only thrusters.

When CAPSTONE catches up with the moon, its approach will be perfectly aligned with the NRHO insertion, the core of its route. At a speed of 3,800 miles per hour [6,116 km/hr]it will perform its delicate, precisely timed propulsion maneuver to enter orbit, like a flying trapeze artist leaping from one arch to another in a determined, acrobatic motion.

NRHO represents an ideal gravitational sweet spot for Lunar Gateway. This is where the gravity of the Earth and Moon interact to allow for a near-stable orbit, “allowing the physics to do most of the work to get it in orbit around the Moon.” keep”. according to to NASA. CAPSTONE will spend six months in NRHO, during which time it will travel to within 2,100 miles (3,400 km) of the Moon’s North Pole at its near pass and 47,000 miles (76,000 km) of the South Pole at its most distant point.

In addition, CAPSTONE will test a navigation system in which the probe will measure its position relative to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and without the use of ground stations on Earth.

More: Astronauts can experience a decade of bone loss during months in space.