Forbes reports that the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) will be launched from the RocketLab’s Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft by June 27, from the LC-1 launch site in New Zealand. The NASA lunar orbiter will text and verify the Gateway space station’s calculated orbital stability. The 12-unit CubeSat will also test a new navigation system by measuring its distance relative to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). 

What is the Gateway Space Station

The Gateway is a space station currently being developed through a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The Gateway will act as a solar-powered communications hub, laboratory, holding area for robots, and a short-term habitation module, once it is placed in lunar orbit. The Gateway will serve as part of NASA’s Artemis program. 

What Will CAPSTONE Do?

CAPSTONE will act as a pathfinder for the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NHRO), which has been calculated to offer long-term stability coupled with low propellant requirements for station-keeping. The NHRO is the planned orbit for NASA’s Artemis program. CAPSTONE will verify the simulations of NHRO’s intended orbit, and confirm the operational aspects of the Gateway. The CAPSTONE mission will validate the Power and Propulsion Elements navigation performance and station-keeping requirements. Given the nature of the mission, all involved will gain crucial experience for future missions under demanding orbital regimes. 

CAPSTONE will become the first spacecraft in NHRO’s orbit. CAPSTONE will also test the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS), a new navigation system which will measure CAPSTONE’s position relative to the LRO, without having to use ground stations. 

CAPSTONE will be launched from the small-lift launch vehicle Electron. CAPSTONE will spend six days in a low-Earth orbit as it is propelled toward the Moon. CAPSTONE will spend three months on course toward the Moon, spending the following six months gathering data. CAPSTONE is set to arrive at its lunar orbit on November 13, assuming a launch date within the present period, which runs through July 27.

CAPSTONE’s launch has suffered numerous delays. Initially, it was announced that CAPSTONE would be launched from Rocket Lab’s new launch site the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island in Virginia. The MARS launch site, designated Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2, had been completed in 2019 and was slated to begin supporting launches in 2021, with the CAPSTONE launch date set for October 2021. However, delays in securing the necessary Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) certification, caused the company to shift the launch site to the Māhia Peninsula. The launch date was then pushed back, and moved to the Māhia, LC-1 launch site in New Zealand. Rocket Lab will earn $9.95 from its launch contract. 

Developed Through Partnership

CAPSTONE was developed and built through what has now become standard NASA practice: a partnership with private contractors. It was developed and built in partnership with a private contractor, Advanced Space, who were awarded a $13.7 million contract on 13 September 2019, through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Advanced Space was responsible for overall project management as well as some of CAPSTONE’s most important technologies, such as the CAPS. A company called Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems developed and built the spacecraft bus, while Stellar Exploration developed the propulsion systems. 

NASA has been working with private contractors because the era of big missions is over. The United States no longer has the appetite or ability to fund the kind of large-scale missions it used to. These partnerships are about finding ways to reduce the costs of missions and operate in a more hard-budget context. 

What CAPSTONE Represents

CAPSTONE isn’t just part of a new way of NASA doing things, it also represents a new era in exploration and development of the Moon. The 25 kilogram spacecraft has fairly modest aims, but the mission is very important nonetheless. 

As traffic to the Moon increases, CAPSTONE is a test mission to see if traffic can be managed through such missions. Because the mission will fly on the NHRO orbit, it will also help NASA by bringing it closer to completing the Lunar Gateway project. The Gateway project will, as we have seen, act as a way station for astronauts going to the Moon. CAPSTONE will allow NASA to test the orbit’s parameters and verify its stability. In other words, this mission is about the future colonization of the Moon. If it succeeds, NASA will be able to manage traffic to the Moon and successfully send astronauts to its surface. 

CAPSTONE could prove crucial in helping NASA to reduce the costs of exploration and developing the Moon. We have entered an era in which private actors are vital components of the colonization of space, and so, working with private contractors will play an important role. 

Where Can You Watch the Launch?

The launch process begins at 6 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) on June 27. The launch could take place as late as July 27, to allow for adjustments due to weather changes or technical delays. Live coverage begins at 5 am EDT on NASA Television, the NASA app and the NASA website.