NASA launches 55-pound cube keystone for moon

June 26, 2022: On Sunday, NASA announced a delay of at least a day in the release of CAPSTONE, allowing more time for testing of final systems. Article updated.

In the years to come, NASA will be busy on the moon.

A giant rocket orbits around the moon with a capsule that has no astronauts in the rear and will probably be lifted by the end of summer. The parade of robotic landers will drop experiments on the moon to collect scientific data on water ice caps, especially in the polar regions. Now a few years later, the astronauts are back there, more than half a century after the last Apollo landed on the moon.

They are all part of NASA’s 21st Century Moon Plan, named after Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

Soon this week, the Cape Stone spacecraft is set to launch the first part of Artemis to the moon. Compared to the ones to follow, it is moderate in size and purpose.

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

But unlike the pre-moon journey it is in many ways. It will serve as a template for a public-private partnership that could get NASA a better bang for the buck on interplanetary missions in the future.

“NASA has been to the moon before, but I do not know if it’s ever been linked together like this,” said Bradley Seatham, chief executive and chairman of Advanced Space, the company that manages NASA’s mission.

The launch was scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, the launch was delayed by at least a day to deliver the rocket lab, An American-New Zealand company This gives CAPSTONE’s journey into orbit, giving more time to do final system tests.

“Teams are assessing the weather and other factors to determine the date of the next missile launch,” NASA said. In a blog post. “The next release opportunity within the current period is on June 28th.”

The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous Stabilization System Technical Functions and Penetration Testing. It will act as a scout in lunar orbit, where a group space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. Named Gateway, the outpost will serve as a route station for future personnel to stop before continuing on the lunar surface.

Capstone is unusual for NASA in many ways. For one, it sits on a launch pad in New Zealand, not in Florida. Second, NASA did not design or build the Capstone, nor did it operate it. The agency does not own it. CAPSTONE is owned by Advanced Space with 45 employees in the suburbs of Denver.

The spacecraft will take a slow but efficient path to the moon and arrive on November 13th. If the rocket misses that instant launch moment due to weather or a technical glitch, there are additional chances until July 27th. If the spacecraft leaves, it will return to the moon’s orbit on the same day: November 13.

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The CAPSTONE mission continues NASA’s efforts to collaborate with private companies in new ways in the hope of quickly acquiring additional capabilities at low cost.

Bill Nelson, NASA’s Administrator, says: “This is another way to find out what NASA needs and reduce costs.

Advance Space’s contract with NASA for CAPSTONE, signed in 2019, is worth $ 20 million. Capstone’s voyage to space is small and cheap: less than $ 10 million to start with Rocket Lab.

“It will be less than $ 30 million in three years,” said Christopher Baker, NASA’s project manager for small spacecraft technology. “Relatively quick and relatively inexpensive.”

Even Forsheet, an Israeli non-profit attempt to land on the moon In 2019, it will cost $ 100 million.

“I see this as an invention of how we can help businesses beyond the earth,” he said. Baker said.

The primary purpose of CAPSTONE is to last for six months and is likely for one more year, Dr. Seetham said.

The data it collects will help planners at a lunar outpost called the Gateway.

In 2017, President Donald J. When Trump announced that his administration’s space policy was to send astronauts back to the moon, the buzzword at NASA was “reusable” and “stable”.

This led NASA to build a space station around the moon as an important part of how astronauts would approach the lunar surface. Such a position would make it easier for them to reach different parts of the moon.

The first Artemis landing mission is currently scheduled for 2025, but is likely to be pushed back, which will not use the gateway. But the next tasks will be.

NASA has decided that the best place to place this outpost would be in what is known as the linear elliptical orbit.

The elliptical orbits are affected by the gravitational pull of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The influence of the two bodies helps to make the orbit more stable, reducing the amount of momentum needed to keep the spacecraft orbiting the moon.

Gravitational interactions keep the orbit at an angle of 90 degrees from the Earth to the view. (This is the linear part of the name.) Therefore, a spacecraft in this orbit does not go behind the moon, where communication is cut off.

The orbit of the Gateway is about 2,200 miles from the Moon’s North Pole and spins over 44,000 miles as it passes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon takes about a week.

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In terms of basic mathematics, attractive paths such as the elliptical orbit near the straight line are well understood. But this is an orbit that no spacecraft has ever traveled.

Thus, Capstone.

Gateway’s program manager Dan Hartman said, “We think we’ve categorized it very well. But with this particular capstone payload, we can help validate our models.”

In practice, without any Universal Positioning System satellites orbiting the moon, it may take some testing and error to figure out how to better position the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

“The biggest uncertainty is actually knowing where you are,” Dr. Seetham said. “Being in space you don’t really know where you are, so you always evaluate where it is with some uncertainty around it.

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE uses its position to triangulate an estimate Signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network Radio dish antennas and, if necessary, push itself towards the desired orbit after passing the farthest point from the moon.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method of diagnosing its condition. It is not possible for anyone to spend time and money building a GPS network around the moon. But there are other spacecraft including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Circling the moon, and more in the years to come. By interacting with each other, a group of spacecraft in different orbits can set up a temporary GPS in essence.

Advanced Space has been developing this technology for over seven years, and now it will test this concept with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which sends signals back and forth via CAPSTONE. “We can determine where the two spacecraft are over time,” Dr. Seetham said.

As it began to create CAPSTONE, Advanced Space decided to add a computer-chip-sized atomic clock to the spacecraft, comparing that time to the time it would be broadcast from Earth. The data will also help determine the location of the spacecraft.

Since Advanced Space owns Capstone, it had the flexibility to make that change without obtaining permission from NASA. As the company cooperates more closely on such projects, this flexibility will be a boon to advanced aerospace and private companies such as NASA.

“Because we have a business agreement with our vendors, when we have to change something, it does not have to go to the big review of government contracting authorities,” Dr. Seetham said. “It helped from a speed perspective.”

On the other hand, the company was unable to go to NASA to ask for more money because it was negotiating a fixed fee for the Advanced Space mission (although it received extra money due to supply chain delays due to the Covit-19 epidemic). Traditional NASA contracts, known as “cost-plus”, give companies a refund of the money they spend and then a fee – a profit – on top of that, giving them little incentive to keep costs under control.

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“Once things came up, we had to figure out how to handle them more efficiently,” Dr. Seetham said.

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using Elon Musk’s fixed price deals with SpaceX, which now sends cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station at a much lower cost than the agency’s own spacecraft did. According to SpaceX, NASA’s investments have helped attract non-NASA clients and private astronauts into orbit interested in launching payloads.

Until Capstone, the task of the Advanced Space was largely theoretical – analyzing orbits and writing its temporary GPS software – not building and operating the spacecraft.

The company is not yet in the spacecraft business. “We bought the spacecraft,” Dr. Seetham said. “I tell people that Legos is the only hardware we build in an advanced company. We have a great logo collection.

In the last two decades, Small satellites called CubeSats have proliferated, Enables several companies to quickly build the spacecraft based on a standard design of 10 centimeters or four inches for each cube. Capstone is 12 cubes in size, but Advanced Space was able to purchase it from Irvine Divok Nano-Satellite Systems in California.

It still had a lot of problems to solve. For example, Most cubes The lower earth is in orbit, a few hundred miles above the surface. The moon is almost a quarter of a million miles away.

“Nobody flew a cube on the moon,” Dr. Seetham said. “So it makes sense that no one made radios to fly cubes on the moon. So we really had to dive in to understand those details and really partner with two different people to get systems that work.

The Gateway Project Manager, Mr. Hartmann is excited about Capstone, but says it is not necessary to make progress with the lunar outpost. NASA has already awarded contracts to build the first two modules of the Gateway. The European Space Agency also contributes two volumes.

“Can we fly without it?” Mr. Hartman said about CAPSTONE. “Yes. Is it mandatory? No.”

But he added, “You can reduce the error bars on your models at any time, which is always good.”

Dr. Seetham is wondering if there could be more trips to the moon for NASA or other business partners. He, too, thinks far and wide.

“I’m very curious about how we can do a similar thing to Mars,” he said. “I’m really very interested in Venus personally. I think it did not attract enough attention.

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