NASA's CAPSTONE became the first cubesat mission to ever visit the moon

The spacecraft successfully enters lunar orbit.
Chris Young
CAPSTONE in orbit near the Moon
CAPSTONE in orbit near the Moon

Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter 

A toaster oven-sized NASA spacecraft will pave the way for a lunar orbital station that will help the U.S. space agency establish a permanent presence on the moon.

NASA announced in a blog update that its 55-pound (25-kilogram) CAPSTONE cubesat spacecraft successfully inserted itself into orbit around the moon on Sunday, November 13.

CAPSTONE, the first cubesat mission to ever visit the moon, was launched from New Zealand by a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on June 28 and it was designed to test the stability of the orbit NASA intends to use for its lunar Gateway orbital outpost.

NASA's CAPSTONE spacecraft enters lunar orbit

The insertion of the CAPSTONE cubesat into the moon's orbit came after the tiny spacecraft performed a successful engine burn that ended at 7:39 p.m. EST. CAPSTONE is now in a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon, which is the path NASA intends to use for its Gateway space station.

First though, the CAPSTONE mission will test the highly elliptical orbital path to see if it is fit for the Gateway orbital station. The CAPSTONE cubesat will fly in the lunar NRHO for about six months to test its stability.

The U.S. space agency will also perform communication and navigation tests, which will include communications with its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that launched back in 2009.

The lunar Gateway will form an important part of the space agency's overall Artemis mission, which aims to establish a permanent presence on the moon. This will, itself, serve as a springboard for further human space exploration to Mars and beyond.

NASA plans to start launching the Gateway outpost in 2024 ahead of its Artemis III lunar landing mission a year or two later.

NASA gears up for Artemis I launch

NASA does still need to conduct some preparatory work before CAPSTONE can start testing the lunar NRHO, including two small correction maneuvers that will take place this week.

The CAPSTONE team briefly lost contact with their spacecraft on July 4, though they were able to resolve the issue and regain contact a day later. The cubesat also went into safe mode on September 8 due to problems with a faulty valve during a trajectory correction burn. Again, the CAPSTONE team was able to troubleshoot and fix the issue from Earth.

NASA is planning to send a much larger spacecraft to the moon this week. The space agency currently has November 16 scheduled for the launch of its Artemis I mission, which will send its Orion capsule to orbit aboard its Space Launch System (SLS), before the uncrewed capsule carries on toward the moon.

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