Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar mission to fly later this year

An illustration of NASA's CAPSTONE mission orbiting near the Moon. Credit: NASA

An illustration of NASA’s CAPSTONE mission orbiting near the Moon. Credit: NASA

Later this year, NASA plans to launch a CubeSat to test a special orbit around the Moon to verify its characteristics in advance of sending the Lunar Gateway there as early as 2024.

The 12-unit CubeSat is called “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment,” or CAPSTONE, and it is spacecraft designed to test the calculated orbital stability of a “near-rectilinear halo orbit” for the Lunar Gateway outpost, which is expected to be part of NASA’s Artemis program.

NASA has contracted Rocket Lab to launch CAPSTONE aboard an Electron rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, in 2021. The rocket will send the 55-pound (25-kilogram) CubeSat into an initial Earth orbit.

Rocket Lab's Photon satellite bus. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus. Credit: Rocket Lab

From there, Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus, which CAPSTONE will be attached to during its initial journey to the Moon, is expected to use its propulsion systems to gradually raise their orbit over a three-month period before ultimately adding enough energy for a trans-lunar injection.

After detaching from Photon, CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion to navigate into the elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit, putting it on a trajectory to circle the Moon every seven days. It’ll come as close as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above one lunar pole to roughly 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometers) above the other.

This halo-shaped orbit, with its elongated shape and pin-point balance between the gravity of Earth and the Moon, has a completely unobstructed view of Earth at all times and can support communications to the lunar south pole, the planned destination of Artemis astronauts.

CAPSTONE is planned to be the first CubeSat to fly in cislunar space — the orbital space near and around the Moon — and the first spacecraft to fly in this particular halo orbit. The mission is also expected to demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solution at the Moon to a near-rectilinear halo orbit by measuring its position relative to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Overall, its mission is to help minimize any risks for future spacecraft destined for this orbit. Using innovative navigation technology, it will orbit the prescribed area around the moon for a minimum of six months to learn the characteristics and specific dynamics of the orbit.

This particular orbit offers stability for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway and requires little energy to maintain, making it an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond for humans.

Video courtesy of Orbital Velocity


Theresa Cross grew up on the Space Coast. It’s only natural that she would develop a passion for anything “Space” and its exploration. During these formative years, she also discovered that she possessed a talent and love for defining the unique quirks and intricacies that exist in mankind, nature, and machines. Hailing from a family of photographers—including her father and her son, Theresa herself started documenting her world through pictures at a very early age. As an adult, she now exhibits an innate photographic ability to combine what appeals to her heart and her love of technology to deliver a diversified approach to her work and artistic presentations. Theresa has a background in water chemistry, fluid dynamics, and industrial utility.

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