NASA’s Capstone mission to test Gateway’s lunar orbit

A 55-pound satellite will become the first spacecraft to test the single lunar orbit chosen for NASA’s planned Gateway space station, while demonstrating the space agency’s embrace of smaller players in private industry.

The microwave-sized Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPSTONE) Technology Operation and Navigation Experiment is set to launch June 6 aboard a New Zealand Rocket Lab Electron rocket to a four-month journey in orbit. There he will spend six to 18 months measuring the impact of radiation and evaluating how computer models match actual orbital characteristics and propulsion requirements. It will also test next-generation operating tools and communication capabilities with Earth and other spacecraft. At the end of the mission, the probe will crash into the lunar surface.

“In the context of Gateway, the power of orbit with larger missions is that it marries the advantages of low lunar orbit, which is surface access to the Moon, with the advantages of retrograde orbit. distant, farther from the Moon, [which] is energy efficiency,” says Jenn Gustetic, NASA’s Director of Innovations and Partnerships for Small Business Innovation Research. “It offers different human exploration capabilities.”

[Illustration: NASA/Daniel Rutter]

The $30 million mission is among NASA’s first steps for its Artemis Moon return program. Capstone will test the possible orbit of the Gateway lunar outpost which will serve as a stepping stone to the lunar surface or to Mars and beyond. The unique elliptical shape of its orbit, which takes a week to complete, provides better fuel economy and strategic launch points. Balanced between the gravities of Earth, Moon, Sun, and even Jupiter, it is a stable loop that requires ten times less propulsion for a spacecraft to maintain than a low-altitude circular orbit, bringing Capstone within 1,000 miles of the lunar South Pole and 43,500 miles above The Other. It also offers the benefit of an unobstructed view of Earth for uninterrupted communication between Earth and the Moon.

Small business entry

Beyond advancing the Artemis mission, Capstone also represents the space agency’s effort to increasingly engage smaller industry players and sources of innovation.

Historically, NASA mission contracts have gone to larger aerospace conglomerates. “We see that being replaced by a more inclusive model,” says Gustetic. “We get insight into industry trends and cutting-edge technologies and ideas from agile startups, but industry partners and startups also have access to NASA resources and experts.”

The agency’s initiatives, such as the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Program and NASA Solve, provide seed funding, grants and awards to small business innovators, academics and citizen scientists for more than 700 projects per year. Recipients retain intellectual property rights, but are responsible for other legal protections, such as patents. Over time, says Gustetic, “you can see the results of these investments translate into true mission success.”

Capstone is such an example, not only of return on investment, but also of the seamless marriage of varying levels of experience and technologies among entrepreneurs. Tethers Unlimited, which designed Capstone’s communications system, has applied more than 50 awards over three decades to technologies from NASA and commercial industry. By comparison, its young partners have won a handful of collective awards in the research that ultimately led to mission technologies, such as Stellar Exploration’s propulsion process, Advanced Space’s trajectory layout, CubeSat design of Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems and the Rocket Lab Launch System.

More recently, NASA has used its funding operations to enable greater accessibility and diversity. Last month, it awarded some $50 million to more than 300 small businesses and research institutes, nearly a third of which were first-time recipients and a quarter were minority. Opening its doors to a wider range of contributors will not only fuel increasingly ambitious missions in space, but perhaps lead to solutions to problems on Earth.

“One of the reasons some small businesses may consider getting even one SBIR award is that it gives them the mechanism to engage with other parts of government to purchase their goods and services. in a more streamlined way,” says Gustetic.

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