NASA's CAPSTONE satellite captures Moon image from lunar Gateway orbit

The tiny Moon satellite is testing a potential orbit for NASA's ambitious lunar Gateway orbital station project.
Chris Young
CAPSTONE's Moon shot.
CAPSTONE's Moon shot.

Advanced Space 2023 

On June 19 last year, Rocket Lab launched NASA's tiny CAPSTONE CubeSat into space. Despite the size of the small satellite, it was a momentous moment for human spaceflight.

The mission was designed to test the stability of the orbit NASA intends to use for its lunar Gateway orbital outpost. If all goes to plan, it could be a key step in NASA's plans to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon.

Now, CAPSTONE has beamed its first image of the Moon back to Earth.

NASA's microwave-sized Moon satellite

CAPSTONE, short for "Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment," is a microwave oven-sized satellite built and operated for NASA by Colorado-based Advanced Space.

It is testing a unique orbit around the Moon known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). This orbit will be occupied by Gateway, which will allow astronauts to quickly shuttle from lunar orbit to the Moon's surface.

NRHO is ideal for Gateway because it is located at a precise gravitational point between the Earth and Moon that is highly stable. This means it wouldn't have to use much fuel to remain in orbit.

The orbit is highly elliptical, meaning CAPSTONE flies as close as 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) from the surface when it flies near one of the lunar poles and as far as 43,500 miles (70,000 km) from the other pole.

On May 3, as it made a close pass of the Moon's north pole, CAPSTONE captured an image of the lunar surface (viewable at the top of the page).

CAPSTONE team tests GPS-like Moon navigation system

CAPSTONE has now spent more than six months in lunar orbit. On May 9, the CAPSTONE team used the CubeSat to test a navigation technology similar to GPS called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS). 

For the test, CAPSTONE beamed a signal to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which was bounced back to allow teams on Earth to record a measurement of the distance and relative velocity of the two Moon satellites.

In an update last week, NASA officials explained that "the test proved the ability to collect measurements that will be utilized by CAPS software to determine the positioning of both spacecraft. This capability could provide autonomous onboard navigation information for future lunar missions."

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board