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Innovative Propulsion System Gets Ready to Help Study Moon Orbit for Artemis

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 24, 2021
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CAPSTONE’s propulsion system undergoes environmental testing. Environmental testing ensures that spacecraft systems can operate after being launched into space and in the space environment. (Credits: Stellar Exploration Inc.)

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) — In 2021, NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, CubeSat will launch to a never-before-used cislunar orbit near the Moon.

As a pathfinder for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce the risk for future spacecraft by verifying the dynamics of a unique halo-shaped orbit. The mission will also demonstrate innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology and communications capabilities with Earth.

CAPSTONE’s journey to the Moon will take about three months, starting with its launch to low-Earth orbit on a Rocket Lab Electron. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will take over next and conduct a series of orbit-raising maneuvers to prepare the CubeSat for its transfer path to the Moon. After separating from Photon, CAPSTONE will utilize an energy-efficient ballistic lunar transfer using its onboard propulsion system and enter into a near rectilinear halo orbit in the vicinity of and around the Moon. There, it will maintain the orbit to inform future spacecraft and demonstrate new technologies. 

CAPSTONE’s propulsion system is designed and built by Stellar Exploration Inc. of San Luis Obispo, California. Initially funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, the system is approximately 8-inches square by 4-inches deep. The system’s eight thrusters are fed hydrazine propellant from an unpressurized tank. CAPSTONE’s super small, high-performance thrusters integrate proven NASA technology with state-of-the-art industry fabrication techniques.  

CAPSTONE is led by Advanced Space of Westminster, Colorado. Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, California, is building the microwave oven-sized CubeSat platform. NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate funds the demonstration mission. The program is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch service.

3 responses to “Innovative Propulsion System Gets Ready to Help Study Moon Orbit for Artemis”

  1. gunsandrockets says:

    When? Real soon!

    NASA announced on 14 February 2020, that CAPSTONE will be launched aboard an Electron booster of Rocket Lab and Photon from the company’s new launch site, Launch Complex-2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wallops Island, in Virginia, and the launch is scheduled for Q3 2021.

    SLS delenda est

  2. gunsandrockets says:

    Lunar missions have historically required decades of planning, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and have been carried out by large spacecraft that require launch on huge rockets. By contrast, the CAPSTONE mission will lift-off less than two years since the project’s inception, and at a launch cost of less than $10 million. The launch is supported by the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission development is funded by the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed by the Small Spacecraft Technology Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley.

    SLS delenda est

    • P.K. Sink says:

      I’ll be very interested in following this mission. However, it would have been nice if they had built two sats like they did with the Marco cubesat program…just for a little added insurance.

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