April 18, 2024

CAPSTONE working well more than a year after launch

WASHINGTON – A year after its launch, a privately owned, NASA-funded cubesat orbiting the moon continues to work well, providing data to support the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration efforts.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft, owned by Advanced Space, a Colorado startup, began its journey to the moon last July after being launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. After overcoming communication and thruster problems, the spacecraft entered a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon in November.

CAPSTONE has completed a six-month primary mission in that orbit and is now in an “enhanced” mission that will last at least a year. “For us, the improved mission is just focusing on more of the automated experiments and trying to collect more data,” Brad Cheetham, chief executive of Advanced Space, said in an interview. “We can try some new things. We can push the envelope.”

The spacecraft has been working well, with only minor technical issues, since reaching the moon. “We went through a lot of challenges to get to the moon,” he said. “Once we got there, we settled on an operational shutdown, which really helped inform a lot of what the Gateway team at Johnson Space Center and others are doing to learn how to work there.”

NASA funded the development of CAPSTONE to test the stability of NRHO, which will use the Lunar Gateway developed by the agency and international partners during several Artemis missions. This included insights into how to perform stationing maneuvers to maintain orbit and how to perform navigation.

Cheetham described his company as having a “great” relationship with NASA’s Gateway program, which preceded the development of CAPSTONE. “The teamwork between Gateway analysis and planning for CAPSTONE is almost non-stop,” he said, with an exchange of information that supported Gateway planning and CAPSTONE operations. “It seems like it was almost one team back and forth.”

Advanced Space also used CAPSTONE to test autonomous navigation technologies. After several attempts, the spacecraft established a cross-link with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, testing the “CAPS” part of the mission’s name. They also used a chip-scale atomic clock on the cube to determine its position using timing information from signals attached to it from ground stations.

The experience from CAPSTONE will help Advanced Space on its next spacecraft mission called Oracle for the Air Force Research Laboratory. The company won a $72 million contract from AFRL in November 2022 to develop a small spacecraft, formerly known as the Cislunar Highway Patrol System, to monitor cislunar space and demonstrate positioning and navigation techniques beyond Earth orbit.

“We know what these systems can do and where they might have problems,” he said, allowing the company to focus on new aspects of the mission. “We’ll be able to focus on the new things that are different from CAPSTONE or the things that might be more difficult.”

Advanced Space, in addition to developing the CAPSTONE and Oracle operations, recently announced that it is supporting ESCAPADE, a small NASA mission to study the interaction of Mars with the solar wind, with mission design and navigation. He is also part of a Draper-led team that won NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services award to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

CAPSTONE, meanwhile, may operate well beyond the enhanced one-year mission. Cheetham said the main concern is the effects of radiation on the spacecraft’s electronics, especially as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity. Fault protection systems on the cube-sat have recovered from several radiation-induced disturbances so far, but it is uncertain how many total doses those systems can receive before degrading.

Drive is not a concern, he said. “We have a lot of delta-V margin and we’re efficient in how we deploy it,” he said. “As a mission directed and managed by orbital mechanics, we have plenty of fuel. We will not run out of fuel on the program.”

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