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Satellite Missions Catalogue

CAPSTONE

Aug 31, 2021

Non-EO

Quick facts

Overview

Mission typeNon-EO

CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment)

Spacecraft     Mission Status     Launch    References

 

In 2019, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate a CubeSat mission to the same lunar orbit targeted for Gateway – an orbiting outpost astronauts will visit before descending to the surface of the Moon in a landing system as part of NASA’s Artemis program. 1) 2)

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles (1000 x 70,000 km) from the lunar surface.

Figure 1: Highly elliptical, a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon takes advantage of a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon and creates a stability that is ideal for long-term missions like Gateway (image credits: Advanced Space)
Figure 1: Highly elliptical, a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon takes advantage of a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon and creates a stability that is ideal for long-term missions like Gateway (image credits: Advanced Space)

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

“This is an exciting opportunity for NASA to aggressively push forward towards the Moon in partnership with several American small businesses as a vanguard to Artemis and sustained human presence beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “This mission is highly ambitious in both cost and schedule – and taking that deliberate risk is part of the objective of this mission – alongside the rapid technological advancement in cislunar navigation and the opportunity to verify orbital trajectory assumptions and retire unknowns for future missions.”

The 12U CubeSat is about the size of a small microwave oven. Onboard is a communications system capable of determining how far CAPSTONE is from NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) and how fast the distance between the two spacecraft is changing. The inter-spacecraft information will be used to demonstrate software for autonomous navigation, allowing future missions to determine their location without having to rely exclusively on tracking from Earth.

CAPSTONE will provide NASA and its partners with important insights to support exploration of the Moon and Mars, including:

- Demonstration of spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation services

- Verification of near rectilinear halo orbit characteristics for future spacecraft

- Experience entering this orbit with a highly efficient lunar transfer

- Experience with rideshare or small dedicated launches to the Moon

- Commercial experience providing mission planning and operations support services for CubeSats beyond Earth

- Rapid commercial delivery of a CubeSat mission beyond Earth orbit.

“CAPSTONE offers a lot in a small package,” said Advanced Space CEO Bradley Cheetham. “Not only will it serve as a pathfinder for Artemis, but it will also demonstrate key exploration-enabling commercial capabilities. Our team will be pioneering state-of-the-art tools for mission planning and operations to enable growth in the number of future missions to the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.”

A number of launch options are possible for the mission, including being the primary payload on a small spacecraft launch vehicle. After launch, CAPSTONE will take approximately three months to enter its target orbit and begin a six-month primary demonstration phase to understand operations in this unique regime.

The award to Advanced Space is through a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, a follow-on to earlier SBIR awards that developed CAPSTONE’s autonomous positioning and navigation system experiment.

The CAPSTONE team includes Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. of Irvine, California. The project is managed by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology (SST) program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Based at NASA's Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, SST expands U.S. capability to execute unique missions through rapid development and demonstration of capabilities for small spacecraft applicable to exploration, science and the commercial space sector. Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate will fund the launch and support mission operations. AES engages in activities focused on advanced design, development, and demonstration of exploration capabilities to reduce risk, lower life cycle cost and validate operational concepts for future human missions.

NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program includes sending a suite of new science instruments and technology demonstrations to study the Moon, landing the first woman and next man on the lunar surface by 2024, and establishing a sustained presence by 2028. The agency will leverage its Artemis experience and technologies to prepare for the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.




CAPSTONE CubeSat mission

The CAPSTONE mission is a pathfinder for NRHO operations that will be vital for future Lunar Gateway activities. Awarded in mid-2019 to Advanced Space LLC, the mission has since completed its key development and implementation milestones and is in final system assembly and test in preparation. This mission represents a new way of commercially partnering with NASA to enable rapid and cost-efficient technology demonstrations for highly condensed returns in experience to inform near-term operational needs. 3)

Figure 2: The CAPSTONE spacecraft in a deployed (top) and stowed (bottom) configuration (image credit: Tyvak)

The CAPSTONE spacecraft is a 12U CubeSat that has been designed and is being built by Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems based on their exiting, commercial 12U satellite bus. In addition to the CAPS (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System) payload flight board, CAPSTONE also includes a color commercial CMOS imager for generating images of the Earth and Moon, two communication systems (X-band and S-band) as well a CSAC for generating additional 1-way navigation data. The X-band system will be used for two-way communicate with the ground as well as part of the 1-way ranging experiment, while the S-band system will perform radiometric measurements with LRO to gather data for the CAPS payload using a S-band patch array antenna. The X -band system will be used to communicate with the ground, while the S-band system will perform radiometric measurements with LRO to gather data for the CAPS payload.

The spacecraft hosts a monopropellant hydrazine propulsion system, called CAPS, delivered by Stellar Exploration, Inc., providing over 200 m/s of total delta-V with eight 0.25-Newton thrusters. Four will be used for translational maneuvers and attitude control, and four will be used for attitude control and momentum desaturation.

CAPS is a unique innovation that operationalizes, and leverages investments made in algorithms, flight computers, and radios over the past decade. At its foundation, CAPS starts with the algorithms and logic of automated navigation layered on top of an innovative approach to absolute orbit determination that requires only relative radiometric ranging and Doppler measurements. In its most streamlined implementation, CAPS will be a software innovation that can be incorporated on any future spacecraft.

SBIR development: From 2017 to 2020 the CAPS development was supported via NASA SBIR contract through Goddard Space Flight Center. In this time the software was developed and tested in a lab environment that readied it for further integration and ultimately flight testing. With the Phase II concluded in mid-2020, the CAPS research and development was funded for continuation through a Phase II-e and Phase III SBIR awards. The intent for these awards is the ongoing development and support of the software as it approaches demonstration on the CAPSTONE mission. Part of these funding extensions is also to expand the data types ingestible by CAPS, thereby widening its navigation capabilities in the cislunar environment.

Crosslink: To demonstrate and accelerate the infusion of CAPS (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System), CAPSTONE will perform numerous crosslink communication passes with LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) using its S-band telecommunication system. The tracking passes will occur when CAPSTONE is nearer to periapse, as LRO is in a polar, low lunar orbit. The availability of these passes will depend on a number of factors, including each spacecraft's power, their relative distances, lunar occultations, pointing constraints, and LRO ongoing science operational priorities. These tracking passes will provide two-way, coherent range and Doppler measurements to the CAPS flight software onboard CAPSTONE. The flight software will demonstrate CAPS in flight, while also downlinking the CAPSTONE-LRO crosslink data to the ground for further refinement, validation, and further development. The objective for CAPSTONE is to accelerate the infusion of autonomous spacecraft navigation, where such crosslink tracking may support the navigation needs of both spacecraft in the link. Eventually, during the enhanced mission phase, the goal is for the CAPS SW to provide full autonomous navigation onboard the CAPSTONE spacecraft thus demonstrating this capability for future cislunar mission applications.

Vision of a CAPS-enabled future: As cislunar space is poised for significant increases in mission activity, missions large and small are inherently constrained by the current limitations of ground tracking systems such as DSN (Deep Space Network) and the Near-Earth Network (NEN). The increasing the complexity of this problem is the ambiguity with which schedule and mission scope can be accurately projected. Many of these missions will be operating in orbital regimes that require frequent tracking and station keeping, which drives the demand for navigation even higher. NASA’s Artemis Program of lunar exploration will return US astronauts to the Moon and lay a foundation for development of lunar resources. The Artemis lunar architecture now in development includes major elements such as the Orion space capsule, the Lunar Gateway, a lunar lander, and the Space Launch System (SLS). Gateway will serve as a departure point for human excursions to the surface of the Moon. Many of these projects, and others from around the world, are now in development and can benefit from the CAPS capabilities for their operational navigation requirements.

Advanced Space foresees a future of increasing scientific and exploration activity within cislunar space. Future missions operated by NASA, commercial entities, and international agencies will face increasing congestion due to limited communication and navigation infrastructure.

The CAPSTONE 12U CubeSat, with a total mass of ~25 kg and a size of 34 x 34 x 64 cm, will serve as the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit as part of the CAPSTONE mission. As a precursor for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit. 4)




Development status

• In June 2022 Rocket Lab will launch a CubeSat to the Moon. This historic pathfinding mission supports NASA’s Artemis program which will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon. 5)

- Using our Electron rocket and new Lunar Photon upper stage, Rocket Lab will inject the CAPSTONE CubeSat to a highly efficient transfer orbit to the Moon. CAPSTONE is owned and operated by Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado, for NASA.

- CAPSTONE’s primary objective is to test and verify the calculated orbital stability of a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit around the Moon, the same orbit planned for Gateway. NASA’s Gateway is a small space station that will orbit around the Moon to provide astronauts with access to the lunar surface. It will feature living quarters for astronauts, a lab for science and research and ports for visiting spacecraft. CAPSTONE will also test a navigation system developed by Advanced Space that will measure its absolute position in cislunar space using interaction with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter without relying on ground stations for navigation support.

Figure 3: How we're getting there (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 3: How we're getting there (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 4: The Electron launch vehicle is CAPSTONE’s ride to space. Once Electron reaches low Earth orbit, our Lunar Photon upper stage takes the reigns to deliver the CAPSTONE spacecraft onto its highly efficient ballistic transfer orbit to the Moon. Lunar Photon, with Advanced Space’s CAPSTONE attached, will orbit the Earth in elliptical phasing orbits over nine days to build up velocity for a Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) to deploy CAPSTONE into the deep space, low energy transfer orbit to the vicinity of the Moon (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 4: The Electron launch vehicle is CAPSTONE’s ride to space. Once Electron reaches low Earth orbit, our Lunar Photon upper stage takes the reigns to deliver the CAPSTONE spacecraft onto its highly efficient ballistic transfer orbit to the Moon. Lunar Photon, with Advanced Space’s CAPSTONE attached, will orbit the Earth in elliptical phasing orbits over nine days to build up velocity for a Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) to deploy CAPSTONE into the deep space, low energy transfer orbit to the vicinity of the Moon (image credit: Rocket Lab)

• April 6, 2022: The pathfinder for NASA’s lunar outpost will launch in May to test an orbit around the Moon that has never been flown before. The CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) is undergoing final construction – and with solar panel installation and vibration testing now complete, the small satellite will soon be shipped to its launch location in New Zealand. 6)

Figure 5: Rebecca Rogers, systems engineer, takes dimension measurements of the CAPSTONE spacecraft at Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. in Irvine, California (image credit: NASA/Dominic Hart)
Figure 5: Rebecca Rogers, systems engineer, takes dimension measurements of the CAPSTONE spacecraft at Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. in Irvine, California (image credit: NASA/Dominic Hart)

- CAPSTONE – operated by Advanced Space – will help pave the way for NASA’s future exploration of the solar system, testing out this significantly elongated and halo-shaped orbit before arrival of Gateway, a next-generation space station that will provide access to the Moon and potentially beyond. Like Gateway, CAPSTONE continues the tradition of commercial partnerships, with five companies, including American small businesses, making contributions. The spacecraft was built and tested by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., a Terran Orbital Corporation in Irvine, California, and will be launched by Rocket Lab of Long Beach, California.

- Some of those partners are joining members of the CAPSTONE team at this year’s Space Symposium, sharing the project’s work and celebrating the induction of small satellite technologies into the Space Technology Hall of Fame. Small satellites, including CubeSats like CAPSTONE, can make meaningful contributions to science and exploration at a lower cost and faster cadence.

- The CAPSTONE mission sends a CubeSat – about the size of a microwave oven – to study this orbit for at least six months, launching via a trajectory known as a ballistic lunar transfer. This highly efficient trajectory uses very little fuel, making use of the Sun’s gravity to reach this unique orbit around the Moon.

Figure 6: A member of CAPSTONE team inspects the installation of solar arrays on the mission’s CubeSat (image credit: NASA/Dominic Hart)
Figure 6: A member of CAPSTONE team inspects the installation of solar arrays on the mission’s CubeSat (image credit: NASA/Dominic Hart)

- By taking advantage of the precise points between the Earth and Moon where the gravity from both is balanced out, spacecraft traveling along this orbital path can save energy to maintain the orbit. It also takes less fuel to enter the orbit because of its elongated shape, only 1,000 miles away from the North Pole at its nearest pass to Earth every six and a half days.

- During its journey along this path, CAPSTONE will test out spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and communications systems with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), another spacecraft in orbit around the Moon. By demonstrating that two orbiting spacecraft can communicate and track their positions independent of Earth, NASA is showing how future missions could pinpoint their place in space as they reach for more distant destinations.

- Now that testing is completed, CAPSTONE is on track to launch next month and begin testing the path that NASA’s Gateway will follow in the years to come.

- CAPSTONE is commercially owned and operated by Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado. It represents an innovative collaboration between NASA and industry to provide rapid results and feedback to inform future exploration and science missions.

- NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) funds the demonstration mission. The program is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The development of CAPSTONE’s navigation technology is supported by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program, also within STMD. Advanced Exploration Systems within NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate funds the launch and supports mission operations. The Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch.

• September 23, 2021: Practice makes perfect. As a Moon-bound CubeSat prepares for launch, the CAPSTONE team at Advanced Space’s operations center in Westminster, Colorado, conducted a series of mission simulations. The simulations virtually put the CubeSat through its orbital dynamics paces. 7)

Figure 7: The team at Advanced Space, NASA's partner, performs the third operations readiness test at its CAPSTONE mission operations center in Westminster, Colorado. The team conducted simulated spacecraft trajectory and correction maneuvers necessary to perform spacecraft insertion into its final lunar orbit (image credit: Advanced Space)
Figure 7: The team at Advanced Space, NASA's partner, performs the third operations readiness test at its CAPSTONE mission operations center in Westminster, Colorado. The team conducted simulated spacecraft trajectory and correction maneuvers necessary to perform spacecraft insertion into its final lunar orbit (image credit: Advanced Space)

- CAPSTONE, a technology demonstration mission, will test a unique lunar orbit that is intended for Gateway, the Moon-orbiting outpost for NASA’s Artemis program. CAPSTONE will demonstrate the ability of its spacecraft – a microwave-oven sized CubeSat – to enter into and maintain this special lunar orbit for approximately six months. The dynamics of this orbit, formally called a lunar near rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO, have not been tested in spaceflight before. The NRHO takes advantage of a precise balance point in the gravity fields of Earth and the Moon. Spacecraft in this orbit will have a continuous, unobstructed view of Earth that will allow constant communications with mission controllers on Earth.

- For the test, the team processed simulated CAPSTONE spacecraft tracking data provided by NASA’s Deep Space Network, to create an accurate prediction of the spacecraft’s location and future trajectory. The mission simulation tests included the team performing the precise, time-critical orbit insertion maneuver into the NRHO. This critical maneuver reduces the spacecraft’s energy so it is captured by lunar gravity. Following the NRHO insertion maneuver, the team executed insertion correction maneuvers, which clean up errors and allows the team to transition to the next expected operations at the Moon. The test also allowed the team to practice responses to potential anomalies during simulated flight to ensure the spacecraft stays on course.

• March 23, 2021: NASA's CAPSTONE journey to the Moon will take about three months, starting with its launch to low-Earth orbit on a Rocket Lab Electron. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will take over next and conduct a series of orbit-raising maneuvers to prepare the CubeSat for its transfer path to the Moon. After separating from Photon, CAPSTONE will utilize an energy-efficient ballistic lunar transfer using its onboard propulsion system and enter into a near rectilinear halo orbit in the vicinity of and around the Moon. There, it will maintain the orbit to inform future spacecraft and demonstrate new technologies. 8)

- CAPSTONE’s propulsion system is designed and built by Stellar Exploration Inc. of San Luis Obispo, California. Initially funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, the system is approximately 8-inches square by 4-inches deep. The system’s eight thrusters are fed hydrazine propellant from an unpressurized tank. CAPSTONE’s super small, high-performance thrusters integrate proven NASA technology with state-of-the-art industry fabrication techniques.

Figure 8: CAPSTONE’s propulsion system undergoes environmental testing. Environmental testing ensures that spacecraft systems can operate after being launched into space and in the space environment (image credit: Stellar Exploration Inc.)
Figure 8: CAPSTONE’s propulsion system undergoes environmental testing. Environmental testing ensures that spacecraft systems can operate after being launched into space and in the space environment (image credit: Stellar Exploration Inc.)


Launch: An Electron rocket successfully launched a NASA-funded CubeSat mission June 28 that will test the stability of the orbit around the moon the agency plans to use for future Artemis lunar missions. 9) 10)

The Electron rocket lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1B in New Zealand at 5:55 a.m. EDT (09:55 UTC). The Electron deployed the Photon kick stage nine minutes after launch, which then fired its HyperCurie engine twice over an hour to raise its orbit.

Photon will perform a series of burns over five days, gradually raising the apogee of its orbit. A final burn six days after launch will place the vehicle on a ballistic lunar trajectory. Photon will then deploy its payload, NASA’s CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) CubeSat.

CAPSTONE will follow a low-energy trajectory to the moon, entering into a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon Nov. 13. That trajectory is designed to minimize the propulsion needed by CAPSTONE, a 12U CubeSat weighing 25 kg, to go into orbit.

CAPSTONE is owned and operated by Advanced Space, a Colorado company that won a NASA contract in 2019 to develop the spacecraft to test the stability of the NRHO, which NASA plans to use for Artemis missions, including the lunar Gateway. That contract is valued at $19.98 million, said Christopher Baker, program executive for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, at a prelaunch briefing in May.

Figure 9: A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off June 28 with NASA's CAPSTONE lunar CubeSat from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand (image credit: NASA TV)
Figure 9: A Rocket Lab Electron lifts off June 28 with NASA's CAPSTONE lunar CubeSat from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand (image credit: NASA TV)

NASA’s CubeSat designed to test a unique lunar orbit is safely in space and on the first leg of its journey to the Moon. The spacecraft is heading toward an orbit intended in the future for Gateway, a lunar space station built by the agency and its commercial and international partners that will support NASA’s Artemis program, including astronaut missions (Ref. 10).

CAPSTONE is attached to Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon, an interplanetary third stage that will send CAPSTONE on its way to deep space. Shortly after launch, Lunar Photon separated from Electron’s second stage. Over the next six days, Photon’s engine will periodically ignite to accelerate it beyond low-Earth orbit, where Photon will release the CubeSat on a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the Moon. CAPSTONE will then use its own propulsion and the Sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way to the Moon. The gravity-driven track will dramatically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to get to the Moon.

Orbit: CAPSTONE was launched into a TLI (Trans Lunar Injection) orbit.

BLT Maneuver

Ballistic Lunar Transfers (BLTs) are a type of low-energy transfer in which a spacecraft travels to an apogee of 1-1.5 million km to utilize the Sun’s gravity to modify the spacecraft’s orbital perigee and inclination.
For CAPSTONE, this effect is used to decrease the inclination from a launch latitude of ~39° to an inclination in line with the Moon’s orbital plane, as well as raise the spacecraft’s perigee to the radius of the Moon. This reduces the deterministic spacecraft ΔV to approximately 20-60 m/s, compared to the 350-550 m/s required for a direct transfer to an NRHO. This reduction in spacecraft ΔV enables the mission to be achieved with a 12U-class CubeSat. The TLI C3 of approximately -0.6 km2/s2 is higher than -2.0 km2/s2, the value needed for a direct transfer. The BLT also requires three to four months of time to traverse, which is substantially longer than a direct transfer. This extended transfer duration provides for advantages from an operational perspective. First, there is ample time to characterize and navigate the spacecraft performance and then perform well-timed trajectory correction maneuvers that allow for a consistent entry time into the NRHO. When the spacecraft reaches perigee, it encounters the Moon and inserts into the NRHO.

Figure 10: TCM Placement in the Earth-Centered EME2000 Frame (image credit: CAPSTONE Team, Ref. 3)
Figure 10: TCM Placement in the Earth-Centered EME2000 Frame (image credit: CAPSTONE Team, Ref. 3)

"Delivering the spacecraft for launch was an accomplishment for the entire mission team, including NASA and our industry partners. Our team is now preparing for separation and initial acquisition for the spacecraft in six days," said Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for CAPSTONE and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, which owns and operates CAPSTONE on behalf of NASA. “We have already learned a tremendous amount getting to this point, and we are passionate about the importance of returning humans to the Moon, this time to stay!"

At the Moon, CAPSTONE will enter an elongated orbit called a near rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO. Once in the NRHO, CAPSTONE will fly within 1,000 miles of the Moon’s North Pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the South Pole at its farthest. It will repeat the cycle every six and a half days and maintain this orbit for at least six months to study dynamics.

“CAPSTONE is a pathfinder in many ways, and it will demonstrate several technology capabilities during its mission timeframe while navigating a never-before-flown orbit around the Moon,” said Elwood Agasid, project manager for CAPSTONE at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. “CAPSTONE is laying a foundation for Artemis, Gateway, and commercial support for future lunar operations.”

During its mission, CAPSTONE will provide data about operating in an NRHO and showcase key technologies. The mission's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, developed by Advanced Space with support from NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, is a spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and communications system that will work with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) to determine the distance between the two lunar orbiting spacecraft. This technology could allow future spacecraft to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth. CAPSTONE also carries a new precision one-way ranging capability built into its radio that could reduce the amount of ground network time needed for in-space operations.

In addition to New Zealand hosting CAPSTONE's launch, New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and a University of Canterbury-led team are collaborating with NASA on a research effort to track Moon-orbiting spacecraft. New Zealand helped develop the Artemis Accords – which establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s 21st century lunar exploration plans. In May 2021, New Zealand was the 11th country to sign the Artemis Accords.

The microwave-oven sized CubeSat was designed and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a Terran Orbital Corporation. CAPSTONE includes contributions from Stellar Exploration, Inc., Space Dynamics Lab, Tethers Unlimited, Inc., and Orion Space Systems. NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) funds the demonstration mission. The program is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The development of CAPSTONE’s navigation technology is supported by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program, also within STMD. The Artemis Campaign Development Division within NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate funds the launch and supports mission operations. The Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch service. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory supports the communication, tracking, and telemetry downlink via NASA’s Deep Space Network, Iris radio design, and groundbreaking 1-way navigation algorithms.




Capstone mission status

• July 6, 2022: Spacecraft controllers have restored communications with a lunar CubeSat that went silent shortly after its deployment earlier this week. 11)

- NASA and Advanced Space, the company operating the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat, said the spacecraft started transmitting again early July 6. The spacecraft stopped communicating about 11 hours after its July 4 deployment from Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon transfer vehicle.

- Both the agency and the company said the root cause of the communications malfunction remains under investigation. After troubleshooting, controllers received a signal from the spacecraft at 9:26 a.m. Eastern and full telemetry from it nearly an hour later, confirming that the spacecraft was in good condition.

- “Through the work over the last day, the team has high confidence that the issue has been cleared and through changes to the configuration and operations it will not happen again,” Advanced Space said in a statement about the spacecraft’s status. NASA, in its own statement, said the loss of contact “was triggered during commissioning activities of the communications system” based on ground-based testing.

- The interruption in communications led controllers to postpone CAPSTONE’s first trajectory correction maneuver, which was scheduled for July 5. NASA and Advanced Space said that maneuver is now scheduled for approximately 11:30 a.m. Eastern July 7. The spacecraft is still on track to enter the near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon on Nov. 13.

Figure 11: NASA and Advanced Space say that now that CAPSTONE has resumed communications and is in good condition, they will perform a trajectory correction maneuver July 7 (image credit: Advanced Space/Terran Orbital)
Figure 11: NASA and Advanced Space say that now that CAPSTONE has resumed communications and is in good condition, they will perform a trajectory correction maneuver July 7 (image credit: Advanced Space/Terran Orbital)

• July 5, 2022: A NASA lunar CubeSat mission has lost contact with Earth a day after its deployment, putting into jeopardy its plans to demonstrate the orbit that will be used for later Artemis missions. 12)

- In a July 5 statement, NASA said the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat “experienced communications issues” during its second pass with the Deep Space Network (DSN) after its July 4 deployment from Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon kick stage. Amateur satellite observers had noticed a lack of transmissions from the spacecraft, prompting speculation something had gone wrong with it.

- “The spacecraft team currently is working to understand the cause and re-establish contact,” NASA said in its statement, noting controllers had good data on the spacecraft’s trajectory from the first DSN pass and second, but partial, DSN pass. “If needed, the mission has enough fuel to delay the initial post-separation trajectory correction maneuver for several days.”

- While CAPSTONE is a NASA-funded mission, it is operated by Advanced Space, a Colorado-based startup. “During commissioning activities an anomaly was experienced related to the communication subsystem; the operations team is actively working this issue with the Deep Space Network and determining the best next steps,” the company said in a statement late July 5.

- Advanced Space said that, before the communications problem, the spacecraft had deployed its solar panels and was charging its batteries. It has also commissioned its propulsion system in preparation for a trajectory correction maneuver.

- CAPSTONE is flying a low-energy trajectory that will take it more than 1.2 million km from Earth, eventually going into a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon in November. That trajectory was designed to minimize the propellant needed by the small spacecraft, weighing only 25 kg, to go into orbit.

- The original mission plan called for its first trajectory correction maneuver on July 5, but that is on hold. “The mission transfer approach and system margins provide time to resolve and understand this anomaly before proceeding with the first trajectory correction maneuver,” the company stated.

- NASA funded CAPSTONE to collect data on the stability of that halo orbit, which will be used by later Artemis missions and the lunar Gateway. However, agency officials have previously said that while the CAPSTONE data will be helpful to refine plans for those Artemis missions, is it not essential.

Lunar Photon’s extended mission

- While CAPSTONE engineers work to restore contact with that CubeSat, Rocket Lab says its Lunar Photon vehicle is still operational after boosting CAPSTONE onto its lunar trajectory and releasing it.

- Lunar Photon is “well and healthy,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s chief executive, said in a call with reporters July 5. “We’re now in the process of working through a secondary mission for that spacecraft. It seemed too great an asset to have in deep space to not take advantage of and do some cool things.”

- He said it was too early to discuss what that extended mission might include, but noted the spacecraft has additional propellant available, as well as generating sufficient power. “It’s really down to comms,” he said, as Rocket Lab is using commercial ground stations rather the DSN to communicate with Lunar Photon.

- Beck noted that Lunar Photon could, for example, enter the same halo orbit that CAPSTONE plans to use. “A piece of cake,” he said when asked about that scenario. “We have plenty of propellant for that, so if required, we could do that, no problem.”

- Rocket Lab plans to use the same Photon spacecraft for a privately funded Venus mission, replacing the CAPSTONE CubeSat with an atmospheric entry probe. “There’s no difference in the spacecraft with the one that will take us to Venus,” he said. “We’re learning a lot and this is a wonderful dry run for the Venus mission.”

• July 4, 2022: The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) has left low-Earth orbit and started its solo journey to the Moon. 13)

- Following its launch on June 28, CAPSTONE orbited Earth attached to Rocket Lab’s Photon upper stage, which maneuvered CAPSTONE into position for its journey to the Moon. Over the past six days, Photon’s engines fired seven times at key moments to raise the orbit’s highest point to around 810,000 miles from Earth before releasing the CAPSTONE CubeSat on its ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the Moon. The spacecraft is now being flown by the teams at Advanced Space and Terran Orbital.

Figure 12: CAPSTONE communicates with Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network en route to the Moon (image credit: NASA)
Figure 12: CAPSTONE communicates with Earth via NASA’s Deep Space Network en route to the Moon (image credit: NASA)

- Now, CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion and the Sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way to the Moon, a four-month journey that will have CAPSTONE inserting into its near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon on Nov. 13. The gravity-driven track will dramatically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to get to its target orbit around the Moon.

- In the coming days, you can follow CAPSTONE’s journey live using NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System interactive real-time 3D data visualization, riding along virtually with the CubeSat with a simulated view of our solar system.

• July 4, 2022: Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB) (“Rocket Lab” or “the Company”), a leading launch and space systems company, today announced it has successfully deployed a pathfinding satellite for NASA, setting it on a course to the Moon. The deployment marks the successful completion of Rocket Lab’s first deep space mission, paving the way for the Company’s upcoming interplanetary missions to Mars and Venus. 14)

Figure 13: Rocket Lab mission controllers monitor the performance of its Lunar Photon transfer stage before the deployment of the CAPSTONE lunar CubeSat July 4 (image credit: Rocket Lab)
Figure 13: Rocket Lab mission controllers monitor the performance of its Lunar Photon transfer stage before the deployment of the CAPSTONE lunar CubeSat July 4 (image credit: Rocket Lab)

- Owned and operated by Advanced Space on behalf of NASA, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) will be the first spacecraft to test the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon. This is the same orbit intended for NASA’s Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that will provide essential support for long-term astronaut lunar missions as part of the Artemis program.

- Rocket Lab’s role in the mission took place over two phases. First, CAPSTONE was successfully launched to low Earth orbit by Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle on 28 June. From there, Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon spacecraft provided in-space transportation, power, and communications to CAPSTONE. After six days of orbit-raising burns by Lunar Photon’s 3D printed HyperCurie engine, CAPSTONE was deployed on its ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the Moon as planned at 07:18 UTC on 4 July, 2022. The mission was Rocket Lab’s fourth Electron launch this year, demonstrating the rocket’s continued reliability. In addition to providing the launch, Rocket Lab designed, manufactured, and operated the Lunar Photon spacecraft, successfully completing a highly complex deep space mission and demonstrating Rocket Lab’s growing capabilities as an end-to-end space company.

- “The CAPSTONE mission marks the beginning of humanity’s return to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program and we’re incredibly proud that Rocket Lab has played a key role in that,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “The Rocket Lab team has been working on CAPSTONE with NASA and our mission partners for more than two years, developing new small satellite technology in the form of the Lunar Photon spacecraft to make this mission possible, so it’s an incredible feeling after all that hard work and innovation to achieve mission success and set CAPSTONE on a course for the Moon. This has been Rocket Lab’s most complex mission to date and our team has been incredible. We pushed Electron and Photon to their limits and proved it’s possible to do big missions with small spacecraft. Now we’ll be applying this ground-breaking technology for more interplanetary journeys, including our upcoming missions to Venus and Mars.”

- With Rocket Lab’s role in the mission now complete, CAPSTONE’s solo journey to the Moon has begun. CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion and the Sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way to the Moon, a four-month journey that will have CAPSTONE arriving to its lunar orbit on November 13, 2022. The gravity-driven track will dramatically reduce the amount of fuel the CubeSat needs to get to the Moon. Advanced Space and Terran Orbital will manage the operation of the CAPSTONE satellite for the duration of its orbital lifespan.

- The CAPSTONE mission was Rocket Lab’s 27th Electron launch overall, but it featured several significant technological firsts for the Company, including:

a) First deep space mission.

b) First use of Lunar Photon, a high energy variant of the Rocket Lab-designed and built Photon spacecraft. Rocket Lab previously launched and continues to operate two low Earth orbit variants of the Photon spacecraft.

c) First collaborative mission between Rocket Lab and Advanced Solutions Inc, a Colorado-based flight-software company acquired by Rocket Lab in late 2021.

d) First time using the FR-lite satellite radio which Rocket Lab has an exclusive license agreement with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to manufacture.

e) First mission where Electron’s second stage deorbited the same day as launch.

f) First mission planning and executing lunar trajectories.

g) At 300 kg (661 lbs) of payload mass, the mission was Electron’s heaviest lift to date.

- CAPSTONE was the first in a series of interplanetary missions for Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft, including the ESCAPADE mission to Mars in 2024 and Rocket Lab’s upcoming private mission to Venus.

- Advanced Space of Colorado, a leading commercial space solutions company, owns the CAPSTONE satellite and operates the mission. CAPSTONE was designed and built by Terran Orbital. CAPSTONE development is supported by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate via the Small Spacecraft Technology Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Advanced Exploration Systems within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate supports the launch and mission operations. NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch management.



1) ”NASA Funds CubeSat Pathfinder Mission to Unique Lunar Orbit,” NASA Press Release 19-073, 13 September 2019, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-funds-cubesat-pathfinder-mission-to-unique-lunar-orbit

2) ”CAPSTONE Charts a New Path for NASA's Moon-Orbiting Space Station,” NASA Feature, 3 May 2022, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/capstone-charts-a-new-path-for-nasas-moon-orbiting-space-station

3) Thomas Gardner, Brad Cheetham, Alec Forsman, Cameron Meek, Ethan Kayser, Jeff Parker, Michael Thompson, Tristan Latchu, Rebecca Rogers, Brennan Bryant, Tomas Svitek, ”CAPSTONE: A CubeSat Pathfinder for the Lunar Gateway Ecosystem,” Proceedings of the 35th Annual AIAA/USU Virtual Conference on Small Satellites, August 7-12, 2021, Logan, UT, USA, SSC21-II-06, URL: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5016&context=smallsat

4) ”What is CAPSTONE?,” NASA, 31 July 2020, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/small_spacecraft/capstone

5) ”Mission To The Moon,” Rocket Lab, 2022, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/missions/lunar/

6) Frank Tavares, ”NASA’s CAPSTONE Prepares to Enter Unique Orbit,” NASA Ames Feature, 6 April 2022, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/ames/CAPSTONE

7) ”CAPSTONE Team Keeps CubeSat on Track During Simulated Flight,” NASA Feature Ames, 23 September 2021: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/capstone-team-keeps-cubesat-on-track-during-simulated-flight

8) ”Innovative Propulsion System Gets Ready to Help Study Moon Orbit for Artemis,” NASA Feature Ames, 23 March 2021, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/innovative-propulsion-system-gets-ready-to-help-study-moon-orbit-for-artemis

9) Jeff Foust, ”Electron launches CAPSTONE lunar CubeSat,” SpaceNews, 28 June 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/electron-launches-capstone-lunar-cubesat/

10) ”CAPSTONE Launches to Test New Orbit for NASA’s Artemis Moon Missions,” NASA Press Release 22-067, 28 June 2022, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/capstone-launches-to-test-new-orbit-for-nasa-s-artemis-moon-missions

11) Jeff Foust, ”CAPSTONE communications restored,” 6 July 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/capstone-communications-restored/

12) Jeff Foust, ”CAPSTONE suffers communications problem,” 5 July 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/capstone-suffers-communications-problem/

13) Sarah Frazier, ”CAPSTONE Leaves Earth Orbit, Headed to the Moon,” NASA Artemis, 4 July 2022, URL: https://blogs.nasa.gov/artemis/2022/07/04/capstone-leaves-earth-orbit-headed-to-the-moon/

14) ”Rocket Lab Moon Mission for NASA a Success,” Rocket Lab, July 4, 2022, URL: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/updates/rocket-lab-moon-mission-for-nasa-a-success/


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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