Science & Technology

We Asked a NASA Technologist: Does Anything Orbit the Moon?

NASA’s Gateway, a vital component of Artemis program, will serve as a multi-purpose outpost orbiting the Moon that provides essential support for long-term human return to the lunar surface and serves as a staging points for deep space exploration. Credit: NASA

Does anything orbit the Moon?

Yes, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and a handful of other active spacecraft are currently orbiting the Moon. One of the really cool CubeSats I’m excited about is NASA CAPSTONE, which joined these other spacecraft in orbit around the Moon. CAPSTONE stands for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It serves as a pathfinder mission for Gateway as part of NASA’s Artemis program. Gateway is a space station that will orbit the Moon and provide a place for astronauts to resupply and prepare for their trips down to the lunar surface.

Did you know that orbits around the Moon are very unstable? The Moon’s gravity is extraordinarily lumpy, so it’s really hard to stay in orbit around the Moon. If a satellite orbits too close to the lunar service, the Moon’s gravity might cause the satellite to actually crash into the Moon. On the other hand, if the satellite is slightly too far away from the Moon, the Earth’s gravity will pull the spacecraft out, flinging it away from the Moon altogether.

Does anything orbit the Moon? Yes. There are a handful of satellites currently orbiting our closest celestial neighbor. On November 13, 2022, they welcomed CAPSTONE, a CubeSat designed to test a new and unique halo-shaped orbit that will offer stability for long-term missions like our upcoming lunar Gateway space station. NASA Small Satellites Engineer Ahn Nguyen tells us about it. Credit: NASA

What’s really cool about CAPSTONE is that it’s the first spacecraft to test the entrance and sustainability of a very unique near rectilinear halo orbit, also known as NRHO. This NRHO orbit is at a precise balance point between the gravities of the Earth and the Moon, which offers a long, stable orbit so that Gateway and future spacecraft don’t have to carry so much fuel to stay in orbit around the Moon.

CAPSTONE is helping lead the way for Gateway and helps reduce risk for future spacecraft in this orbit. Another really cool thing about CAPSTONE is that it is also demonstrating a really innovative navigation system that will allow future spacecraft to determine their location without having to rely exclusively on tracking from Earth.

So does anything orbit the Moon? In summary, yes. There are several spacecraft orbiting the Moon and there will be plenty more to come, including CAPSTONE as part of NASA’s Artemis program.


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