the Capstone spacecraft inaugurates a bizarre orbit around the Moon

An important first step validated for the Artemis program, pending the launch of the SLS, which has been buzzing for several weeks.

That’s all ! After a final maneuver to refine its trajectory, the tiny Capstone probe successfully entered the orbit of the Moon on Sunday 13 November. He will finally be able to get to work after a tumultuous journey that has left NASA engineers in a cold sweat.

As a reminder, this little machine weighing just 25 kilograms is a scout who must pave the way for the installation of the Lunar Gateway. It will be an orbital outpost that will serve as a base of operations for astronauts leaving for the Moon or other planets; this will greatly facilitate the logistics of the Artemis program, but also many other future missions.

A road full of pitfalls

This safe arrival is a great relief for NASA. Because in the meantime the teams on the field have probably gained a few gray hairs. In fact, the agency lost contact with the craft about a week after liftoff, shortly after it left Earth orbit. Fortunately, NASA managed to restore communication a few days later (see our article).

An artist’s impression of Capstone. © Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter

But that wasn’t the end of his troubles. In addition to this chilling silence, cubesat also encountered a very worrying technical problem in September. Capstone spun wildly; situation that could have led to a dry failure, and consequently to the pure and simple loss of the sensor. With more than significant consequences on the sequence of events. (see our article).

Fortunately, all’s well that ends well. Capstone finished arrive near the Moon in good health and on the expected date. For the record, this is the first time ever that a cubesat (these tiny shoebox-sized satellites) has reached our satellite’s orbit.

The serious stuff begins

And now he will get to work. From now on, her goal will be to demonstrate her ability to remain in the rather special orbit chosen by NASA for the Gateway. It’s a near-rectilinear halo orbit (see our article), and it’s the first time a space agency has considered placing a space station in such an orbit.

If Capstone can stay there without problems for an extended period, that will be great news for the outpost’s deployment. And by extension, for the future of the Artemis program and space exploration in general. From now on, the small probe will continue to refine its orbit with two successive maneuvers. ” Two small correction maneuvers will take place this week to ensure that the vehicle is well placed in this complex orbit “says NASA in a communicated.

All that remains is to wait for the departure of the SLS. © NASA/Joel Kowsky

It will then be able to begin testing all the navigation and communication equipment that will be used throughout the Artemis program, whose overriding goal is to return man to the Moon by 2025.

It is therefore a first real success for this series of missions, each more ambitious than the last. Now we just have to wait for the launch of the Space Launch System, protagonist of the Artemis I mission which also encountered numerous technical problems (see our article). His departure is scheduled for November 16; unless a new postponement, which this time appears completely unlikely, the Orion capsule will therefore soon visit Capstone in orbit of the Moon, thus starting a scientific adventure that already promises to be exciting. .