The historic journey of a tiny NASA spacecraft to the moon is over.
The 55-pound (25-kilogram) CAPSTONE probe slid into orbit around the moon on Sunday evening (November 13), becoming the first CubeSat to ever visit Earth’s nearest neighbor.
The milestone came after a successful engine fire that ended at 7:39 p.m. EST (0039 GMT on November 14), NASA officials said in a brief update (opens in new tab).
Related: Why NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe took so long to reach the moon
#CAPSTONE is on the #moon! Initial data indicate that the insertion into the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) was completed as planned. This week, two clean-up maneuvers will ensure the spacecraft was accurately launched into orbit. Congratulations CAPSTONE mission team!#innovation2orbit pic.twitter.com/5uBwwSsZdyNovember 14, 2022
The maneuver placed CAPSTONE (short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, a highly elliptical orbit also occupied by NASA’s Gateway space station.
NASA plans to launch the first parts of Gateway, a crucial part of its Artemis lunar exploration program, in 2024. But the agency wants to learn more about NRHOs on the Moon first, and that’s where CAPSTONE comes in: the microwave-sized spacecraft will verify the suspected stability of this previously uncharted orbit during a mission scheduled to last at least six months.
CAPSTONE will also conduct some communications and navigation tests, some in collaboration with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the moon since 2009.
However, CAPSTONE is not ready to get to work just yet; it still has to fine-tune its path around the moon.
“Two minor corrective maneuvers will take place this week to ensure the spacecraft is confirmed in complex lunar orbit,” officials from Colorado firm Advanced Space, which owns CAPSTONE and operates the CubeSat for NASA, wrote in an update Sunday night (opens in new tab).
CAPSTONE’s journey into lunar orbit was a bit bumpy. The probe launched on June 28 on a Rocket Lab electron booster and embarked on a circuitous, highly fuel-efficient 4.5-month hike that followed gravitational contours.
The CAPSTONE team lost contact with the probe on July 4 shortly after it separated from Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft bus. They quickly identified and fixed the problem, a malformed command, and got CAPSTONE back on track the next day.
CAPSTONE ran into more trouble two months later. The probe suffered a failure on Sep 8 during a trajectory correction engine fire; it began to stagger and then went into a protective safe mode.
The mission team traced this issue to a shaky valve in CAPSTONE’s propulsion system, fixed it and put the probe back on course for its historic lunar arrival.
Other CubeSats will soon follow in CAPSTONE’s footsteps if all goes according to plan. NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission is scheduled to launch on November 16 and send the agency’s Orion capsule on an unmanned shakeout cruise into lunar orbit. Artemis 1 will also loft 10 ride-along CubeSats, some of which will study the moon.
One of these small ships, Japan’s OMOTENASHI (“Outstanding Moonexploration Technologies Demonstrated by Nano Semi-Hard Impactor”), will even land a tiny lander on the moon.
Although CAPSTONE is a precursor to the moon, it is not the first CubeSat to leave Earth orbit. That award goes to NASA’s MarCO-A and MarCO-B probes, also known as Wall-E and Eva, which were launched in May 2018 with the agency’s Mars lander InSight. The two CubeSats helped beam data home six months later during InSight’s Red Planet landing and also managed to photograph Mars.
Mike Wall is the author of “out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) gold Facebook (opens in new tab).
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