CAPSTONE: The Story So Far

After decades of delays and false starts, NASA is finally returning to the Moon. The world is eagerly awaiting the launch of Artemis I, the first demonstration flight of both the Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which combined will send humans out of low Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. But it’s delayed.

While the first official Artemis mission is naturally getting all the attention, the space agency plans to do more than put a new set of boots on the surface — their long-term goals include the “Lunar Gateway” space station that will be the rallying point for the sustained exploration of our nearest celestial neighbor.

But before launching humanity’s first deep-space station, NASA wants to make sure that the unique near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) it will operate in is as stable as computer modeling has predicted. Enter the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE.

CAPSTONE in the clean room prior to launch.

Launched aboard an Electron rocket in June, the large CubeSat will hopefully become the first spacecraft to ever enter into a NRHO. By positioning itself in such a way that the gravity from Earth and the Moon influence it equally, maintaining its orbit should require only periodic position corrections. This would not only lower the maintenance burden of adjusting the Lunar Gateway’s orbit, but reduce the station’s propellant requirement.

CAPSTONE is also set to test out an experimental navigation system that uses the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as a reference point instead of ground-based stations. In a future where spacecraft are regularly buzzing around the Moon, it will be important to establish a navigation system that doesn’t rely on Earthly input to operate.

So despite costing a relatively meager $30 million and only being about as large as a microwave oven, CAPSTONE is a very important mission for NASA’s grand lunar aspirations. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone quite to plan so far. Trouble started just days after liftoff, and as of this writing, the outcome of the mission is still very much in jeopardy.

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