The journey of a small NASA spacecraft to the moon has ended.
The 55-pound (25 kg) CAPSTONE probe slid into lunar orbit Sunday evening (November 13), becoming the first cube ever to visit Earth’s closest neighbors.
The achievement came after a successful engine burn that ended at 7:39 p.m. EDT (0039 GMT on November 14), NASA officials said in a brief update. (Opens in a new tab).
Related: Why did NASA’s small CAPSTONE probe take so long to reach the moon
#CAPSTONE in the #Moon! Preliminary data indicate that insertion into the straight near-orbital halo (NRHO) was performed as planned. This week, two clean-up maneuvers will ensure the spacecraft is accurately inserted into orbit. Congratulations to the CAPSTONE mission team! #Innovation2orbit pic.twitter.com/5uBwwSsZdyNovember 14, 2022
This maneuver placed CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) in a nearly straight halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, a highly elliptical path that will also be occupied by NASA’s Gateway Space Station.
NASA plans to launch the first parts of the Gateway, an important part of the Artemis lunar exploration program, in 2024. But the agency wants to learn more about lunar NRHOs first, and that’s where CAPSTONE comes in: a spacecraft the size of a microwave oven will verify the suspected stability of this orbit, which No spacecraft had flown in it before, during a mission designed to last at least six months.
CAPSTONE will also conduct some communication and navigation tests, some in coordination with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009.
However, CAPSTONE is not yet operational; Still need to adjust its trajectory around the moon.
“Two smaller correction maneuvers will be conducted this week to ensure the spacecraft is confirmed in a complex lunar orbit,” representatives of Advanced Space, which owns CAPSTONE and operates NASA’s Cubes, wrote in a Sunday night update. (Opens in a new tab).
CAPSTONE’s path to lunar orbit was a bit bumpy. The probe was launched atop the Rocket Lab Electron booster on June 28, embarking on a highly fuel-efficient 4.5-month circular flight that follows the lines of gravity.
The CAPSTONE team lost contact with the probe on July 4, right after it separated from the Foton spacecraft’s Rocket Lab bus. They quickly identified and fixed the problem, which was incorrectly formatted, and got CAPSTONE back on track the next day.
CAPSTONE had more problems two months later. The probe experienced a malfunction during the burning of the trajectory correction engine on September 8. It started getting stuck and got into safe sandbox as a result.
The mission team traced this problem to a wonky valve in CAPSTONE’s propulsion system, disabled it, and put the probe back on course for its historic arrival to the Moon.
Other cubes will soon follow in CAPSTONE’s footsteps, if all goes according to plan. NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission is scheduled to launch on November 16, sending the agency’s Orion capsule on an uncrewed, rocky flight into lunar orbit. Artemis 1 will also run 10 ride-along cubes, some of which will study the moon.
One of those small rovers, Japan’s OMOTENASHI (“Outstanding Lunar Exploration Technologies Demonstrated by Nano Semi-Hard Impactor”), will place a small probe on the lunar surface.
Although CAPSTONE is a lunar pioneer, it is not the first cube to go beyond Earth’s orbit. That distinction goes to NASA’s MarCO-A and MarCO-B sensors, also known as Wall-E and Eva, which were launched with the agency’s InSight Mars lander in May 2018. Both cubes helped send home data during InSight’s Red Planet landing Six months later I was also able to photograph Mars.
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Great Grand Publishing House, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book on the search for extraterrestrials. Follow him on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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