Science & Technology

NASA’s CAPSTONE Spacecraft Arrives to Orbit at the Moon

CAPSTONE in orbit near the Moon: Once released from Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus, CAPSTONE will use its propulsion system to travel for approximately three months before entering into orbit around the Moon. Credit: Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter

NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft arrived at its orbit at the Moon Sunday evening, as confirmed by the CAPSTONE mission operations team. The microwave oven–sized CubeSat completed an initial orbit insertion maneuver, firing its thrusters to put the spacecraft into orbit, at 7:39 p.m. EST (4:39 p.m. PST).

CAPSTONE, short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, is now in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO. This particular NRHO is the same orbit that will be used by Gateway, the Moon-orbiting space station that will support NASA’s Artemis missions. CAPSTONE is the first spacecraft to fly an NRHO, and the first CubeSat to operate at the Moon.

In this animation, the planned trajectory for CAPSTONE’s near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) is shown in red. The NRHO insertion maneuver and two subsequent correction maneuvers ensure that the spacecraft accurately inserts into the NRHO. Without a properly executed insertion maneuver, CAPSTONE will fly by the Moon without making it into orbit, as shown in blue. Credit: Advanced Space/Matt Bolliger

In the next five days, CAPSTONE will perform two additional clean-up maneuvers to refine its orbit. After these maneuvers, the team will review data to confirm that CAPSTONE remains on track in the NRHO.

Weighing just 55 pounds, CAPSTONE serves as the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit. This makes it a pathfinder for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program. In this role, CAPSTONE will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit.

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