A toaster-sized probe will soon scope out a special orbit around the moon, the path planned for NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station. The Gateway, to be rolled out later this decade, will be a staging point for the astronauts and gear that will be traveling as part of NASA’s Artemis lunar program. The launch of this small yet powerful pathfinding probe will inaugurate the Artemis mission, finally setting the space agency’s ambitious moon projects in motion.
The plucky little spacecraft is called Capstone, or, more officially, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will be perched atop a Rocket Lab Electron rocket scheduled to blast off on June 27 from the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand at 9:50 pm local time (5:50 am EDT). If it can’t launch that day, it’ll have other opportunities between then and July 27. Launch operators had planned the liftoff for earlier this month but decided to postpone it while updating the flight software.
“We’re really excited. It’ll basically be the first CubeSat launched and deployed to the moon,” says Elwood Agasid, the Capstone program manager and deputy program manager for NASA’s Small Satellite Technology Program at Ames Research Center. “Capstone will serve as a pathfinder to better understand the particular orbit Gateway will fly in and what the fuel and control requirements for maintaining orbit around the moon are.”
CubeSats pack a lot into tiny spaces, typically at a lower cost than larger satellites. The “cube” refers to a single standard unit, which is about 4 inches on a side. Many CubeSats have a 3U format, with a trio joined to form a configuration about the size of a loaf of bread. Capstone is a 12U spacecraft, or four of those combined….