NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft has settled into its final lunar orbit, entering the operational phase of its pioneering mission to the moon.
CAPSTONE, which is about the size of a microwave oven, landed on the moon Nov. 13, becoming the first cubesat to do so. The probe quickly performed two engine burns to refine its orbit and has now embarked on its six-month mission to the Moon, NASA officials announced Monday (November 21).
This mission focuses on validating the presumed stability of a lunar near-rectilinear halo orbit, a highly elliptical trajectory that will also be used by Gateway, the small space station that NASA plans to build as part of its Artemis program.
“Missions like CAPSTONE allow us to reduce risk to future spacecraft, giving us a chance to test our understanding and demonstrate the technologies we intend to use in the future,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement. (opens in a new tab).
Related: Why it took NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe so long to reach the moon
CAPSTONE will also test two new technologies that could help future lunar probes determine their position in space more independently. One is a chip-scale atomic clock, and the other is navigation software developed by Advanced Space, the Colorado-based company that owns CAPSTONE and operates it for NASA.
CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) was launched atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster on June 28.
Liftoff sent CAPSTONE on a circuitous, highly fuel-efficient trek to the moon, which didn’t go perfectly.
For example, CAPSTONE lost contact with its handlers on July 4, shortly after the cubesat separated from Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus. The lunar probe also began to fall and went into failsafe mode during an engine fire on September 8.
But the mission team solved both of these problems, getting CAPSTONE to its destination and setting it up for the work ahead.
“We have been working so far since we started the company over 11 years ago. Entering this orbit on the moon validates so much hard work and courage from the combined operations team of the CAPSTONE mission,” said Bradley Cheetham, CAPSTONE Principal Investigator and CEO. of Advanced Space, said in the same statement.
“The capabilities we have demonstrated and the technologies yet to mature will support future missions for decades to come,” he added.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).