The preparations for the launch of CAPSTONE, which is planned to take place early next year, are ongoing at Boulder, Colorado. CAPSTONE is simply an abbreviation of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It is part of the Artemis program, which aims at helping NASA carry out crewed lunar exploration. If things go as planned, the spacecraft will be the first to operate around the moon yet in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). NRHO is the special orbit where the assembling and operation of a Gateway will occur. In this context, Gateway is simply a small moon-orbiting space station.
This particular CubeSat by the name CAPSTONE is the size of a microwave. Its weight is 55 lbs. only, which are equivalent to 25 kg. Despite the small size and being lightweight, NASA expects it to do quite a considerable task. The purpose of the mission is to explore the NRHO. As much as modelers have studied the orbit, not even a single spacecraft has experienced that up to now. That’s where the CAPSTONE comes in to give firsthand experience on how to enter this particular orbit as well as function while at it. In addition to entering the NRHO, it will assess what is necessary during the entrance, maintain the orbit once you are over there, and leave it once you are done.
Another exciting thing is that it will measure the distance between CAPSTONE and the 2009 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched by NASA back then. It will achieve that using communication systems that will be onboard. With such information, it will be easier to locate a particular mission’s spacecraft without using the Earth’s tracking assets.
It is important to note that CAPSTONE is a result of combined efforts. Different commercial partners are doing various things, including managing, assembling, testing, and flying them. The role of developing as well as operating it lies on the Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado. California’s Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of Irvine will be in charge of the construction of its platform. Its propulsion system, its stay in the NRHO, as well as disposal after use, are responsibilities of Stellar Exploration, Inc. located in San Luis Obispo, California. Last but not least is the company in charge of its launch, Rocket Lab, with its Electronic launcher. The launch will take place on its Launch Complex 2 in Wallops Island, Virginia, where its Mid-Atlantic Spaceport is based.
According to Cheetham, progress is commendable. Nevertheless, he points out that the global pandemic has made the process a little more complicated than expected. Due to coronavirus, they are behind schedule by a month. That’s probably why they don’t have a tentative date. However, they still believe that the project will see the light of the day around early next year.