NASA awards a $13 million contract to demonstrate Gateway in lunar orbit

NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to a company to develop a small satellite that will be deployed on the Moon’s orbit and gather data for the upcoming Lunar Gateway.

The Colorado-based company, Advanced Space received the NASA contract and they said that the funding will include financing for the development of a 12-unit CubeSat called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE).

CAPSTONE, a small, microwave oven-sized satellite, will feature a communications system geared to measure the mission’s distance from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter robotic spacecraft, which was created to map the Moon’s surface and now carries out additional scientific objectives. CAPSTONE will be able to tell how that distance is changing over time, allowing the CubeSat to measure its position without relying on ground stations. NASA will then use data gathered by CAPSTONE to inform future demonstrations of autonomous navigation software.

An illustration of CAPSTONE, a 12-unit CubeSat that will test lunar navigation technologies and operations in the orbit planned for the lunar Gateway.
Source: Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems

The CubeSat is also designed to demonstrate the use of the unique orbit planned for the agency’s lunar Gateway, which will serve as a staging point for human landings near the south pole of the moon starting in 2024.

Interestingly, NASA will be deploying the CubeSat in likely place where it could be considered as the first spacecraft to use what’s known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, an elliptical polar orbit around the moon whose closest point to the moon is over one pole and the most distant point is over the other pole. 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 from the lunar surface.

To be specific, CAPSTONE will be able to provide scientists data regarding how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce “logistical uncertainty,” as the space agency noted, for Gateway.

The data will also prove to be essential as NASA and international partners plan to start construction in 2022. Having preliminary data largely ensures future construction protocols as well as astronauts to 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,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a September 13 statement announcing the CAPSTONE contract.

“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,” Reuter added.

Along with Advanced Space, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a CubeSat developer will be working to help develop the CubeSat.

Brad Cheetham, chief executive of Advanced Space, said Tyvak will provide the spacecraft while Advanced Space will handle overall project management and some of the spacecraft’s key technologies, like its navigation system.

Advanced Space has been working on lunar navigation technologies, including winning a Space Act Agreement with NASA in July for that system, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS). That earlier agreement, Cheetham said, will support CAPS, and thus the CAPSTONE mission, by giving the company access to NASA expertise as well as resources from the Lunar Reconnaissance Mission.

“The CAPSTONE mission will be an opportunity to demonstrate core components of CAPS as well as other capabilities we have been working on,” he said. “We see this work as a pathfinder for NASA as well as future missions to the moon by others.”

Cheetham said that NASA is responsible for procuring the launch. “I expect we will have more details on this aspect of the mission in the coming months,” he said.

In essence, the CAPSTONE mission serves as a precursor to the Artemis mission, NASA’s goal of returning man and the first woman on the Moon’s surface by 2024. Also, the space agency aims to conduct thorough studies on the lunar surface and Gateway will function as a stopover or outpost for astronauts to do this.

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