One of the Artemis Rocket Launches

Image (Credit): June 28th launch of CAPSTONE aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. (Rocket Lab)

While we are awaiting the launch of the uncrewed Artemis phase-one rocket later this summer to test the waters for a crewed mission, other related missions are ongoing. NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) was launched earlier in the week from New Zealand and will take about four months before it orbits the Moon for another six months. The miniaturized satellite, or CubeSat, is designed to test the future lunar orbit of Gateway, a lunar space station being planned by NASA and its commercial and international partners to support NASA’s Artemis program, including astronaut missions.

Here are CAPSTONE’s mission objectives:

  • Verify the characteristics of a cis-lunar near rectilinear halo orbit for future spacecraft;
  • Demonstrate entering and maintaining this unique orbit that provides a highly-efficient path to the Moon’s surface and back;
  • Demonstrate spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation services that allow future spacecraft to determine their location relative to the Moon without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth;
  • Lay a foundation for commercial support of future lunar operations; and
  • Gain experience with small dedicated launches of CubeSats beyond low-Earth orbit, to the Moon, and beyond.

In a press release, Elwood Agasid, project manager for CAPSTONE at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, stated:

CAPSTONE is a pathfinder in many ways, and it will demonstrate several technology capabilities during its mission timeframe while navigating a never-before-flown orbit around the Moon…CAPSTONE is laying a foundation for Artemis, Gateway, and commercial support for future lunar operations.

We forget about all of the smaller missions (literally, in this case) that make the full mission possible. CAPSTONE is a key mission to test some ideas and reduce risk for future astronauts.

Image (Credit): Artist’s impression of CAPSTONE in orbit near the Moon. (Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter)