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NASA to Launch Capstone, a 55-Pound CubeSat to the Moon - The New York Times

NASA to Launch Capstone, a 55-Pound CubeSat to the Moon - The New York Times

NASA to Launch Capstone, a 55-Pound CubeSat to the Moon - The New York Times
Jun 26, 2022 3 mins, 17 secs

NASA has grandiose plans for sending astronauts back to the moon.

Early on Monday, a spacecraft named CAPSTONE is scheduled to launch as the first piece of Artemis to head to the moon.

“NASA has gone to the moon before, but I’m not sure it’s ever been put together like this,” said Bradley Cheetham, chief executive and president of Advanced Space, the company that is managing the mission for NASA.

It will act as a scout for the lunar orbit where a crewed space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis.

CAPSTONE belongs to Advanced Space, a 45-employee company on the outskirts of Denver.

The spacecraft is taking a slow, but efficient trajectory to the moon, arriving on Nov.

The CAPSTONE mission continues efforts by NASA to collaborate in new ways with private companies in hopes of gaining additional capabilities at lower cost more quickly.

The ride to space for CAPSTONE is small and cheap too: just under $10 million for a launch by Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company that is a leader in delivering small payloads to orbit.

The primary mission of CAPSTONE is to last six months, with the possibility of an additional year, Dr.

Trump declared in 2017 that a top priority for his administration’s space policy was to send astronauts back to the moon, the buzzwords at NASA were “reusable” and “sustainable.”.

That led NASA to make a space station around the moon a key piece of how astronauts would get to the lunar surface.

The influence of the two bodies helps make the orbit highly stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to keep a spacecraft circling the moon.

The tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft will orbit the moon in a stable and efficient path called a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

(This is the near-rectilinear part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon where communications would be cut off.

In practice, without any global positioning system satellites around the moon to pinpoint precise locations, it might take some trial and error figure out how best to keep the spacecraft in the desired orbit.

Like other NASA missions, CAPSTONE will triangulate an estimate of its position using signals from NASA’s Deep Space Network of radio dish antennas and then, if necessary, nudge itself back toward the desired orbit just after passing the farthest point from the moon.

But there are other spacecraft, including NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, circling the moon, and more will likely arrive in the coming years.

As it started developing CAPSTONE, Advanced Space also decided to add a computer-chip-scale atomic clock to the spacecraft and compare that time with what is broadcast from Earth.

Because Advanced Space owns CAPSTONE, it had the flexibility to make that change without getting permission from NASA.

And while the agency still collaborates closely on such projects, this flexibility can be a boon both for private companies like Advanced Space and for NASA.

The flip side is that because Advanced Space had negotiated a fixed fee for the mission, the company could not go to NASA to ask for additional money (although it received extra payments because of supply chain delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic).

This is similar to NASA’s successful strategy of using fixed-price contracts with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which now ferries cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station at a much lower cost than the agency’s own space shuttles once did.

Until CAPSTONE, Advanced Space’s work was mostly theoretical — analysis of orbits and writing software for its ad hoc GPS — not building and operating spacecraft.

CAPSTONE is among the largest, with a volume of 12 cubes, but Advanced Space was able to buy it, almost off-the-shelf, from Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine, Calif.

Cheetham is thinking about what could come next, perhaps more missions to the moon, either for NASA or other commercial partners


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