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A small spacecraft the size of a microwave oven can pave the way for a station between Earth and the Moon

(CNN)A small spacecraft that has a major impact on lunar exploration is ready to be launched. A small satellite called

CubeSatis about the same size as a microwave oven and weighs only 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but we decided to test a unique satellite first. Become. Elliptical lunar orbit. CubeSat acts as a gateway pathfinder, an orbiting lunar outpost that acts as a way station between Earth and the Moon for astronauts.

A nearly linear orbit, called a halo orbit, is very long and requires little energy to maintain, providing stability for long-term missions. This is exactly what the gateway needs. The orbit exists at a point where the gravity of the moon and the earth is balanced.

Called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, the mission known as CAPSTONE will take off from the launch pad on Monday, June 27, at 5:50 am. The CubeSat will be launched from the company's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on Rocket Lab's Electron rocket.

When CAPSTONE starts, it will reach the orbital point within 3 months and spend the next 6 months in orbit. Spacecraft can provide more data on gateway power and propulsion requirements.

CubeSat's orbit is within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 km) from one lunar pole on the closest path to the spacecraft and 43,500 miles (70,006.5 km) every seven days from the other pole. ) Will be carried within. Using this orbit makes the spacecraft more energy efficient when flying to and from the gateway because it requires less propulsion than more circular orbits.

Miniature spacecraft are also used to test the ability to communicate with Earth from this orbit. This has the advantage of being able to see the Earth clearly while covering the Moon's South Pole, where the first Artemis astronaut is.

NASA's lunar reconnaissance orbit, which has been orbiting the moon for 13 years, provides a reference point for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft communicate directly with each other, allowing teams on the ground to measure the distance between each and their home at the exact location of CAPSTONE.

Collaboration between the two spacecraft allows you to test CAPSTON's autonomous navigation software, CAPS, or the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System. If this software works as expected, it may be used on future spacecraft without relying on tracking from Earth.

"The CAPSTONE mission is a valuable precursor not only to gateways, but also to Orion spacecraft and human landing systems," said NASA's Exploration Mission Planning Office at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Nujoud Merancy said. “Gateway and Orion use data from CAPSTONE to validate the model, which is important for the operation and planning of future missions.”

Small satellites for large missions

The CAPSTONE mission is a fast, low-cost demonstration aimed at helping lay the foundation for future small spacecraft. , NASA's Space Technology Mission Bureau Small Spacecraft Technology Program Executive.

Being able to put together small missions and launch them faster at lower cost means that you can seize opportunities that are not possible with larger, more expensive missions.

"Flight tests often learn more from failure than success. If you know that you can fail, you can afford to take more risks, We can accept the failure to move to advanced features. " "Failure is an option in this case."

Lessons from a small CubeSat mission can inform future big missions-and CubeSats are more challenging destinations than low earth orbit. Has already started.

When NASA's InSight lander was on a nearly seven-month trip to Mars in 2018, it wasn't alone. Two suitcase-sized spacecraft called MarCOtraveled following InSight. They were the first cubic satellites to fly into deep space.

During InSight's approach, descent, and landing, the MarCO satellite sent and received communications from the lander to inform NASA that InSight was safely on the surface of the red planet. These were called EVE and WALL-E after the robots in the 2008 Pixar movie.

The fact that a small satellite reached Mars and was flying behind InSight in space excited engineers. After InSight landed, CubeSats continued to fly over Mars, but was silent by the end of the year. But MarCO was a great test of how CubeSats tags larger missions.

These small but powerful spacecraft will play a supporting role again in September. At this time, the DART mission, or double asteroid redirection test, intentionally collides with Moonlet Didymos as it orbits the near-Earth asteroid Didymos and changes the asteroid Didymos. The movement of asteroids in space.

Collisions are recorded by the LICIACube, or the Light Italian CubeSatfor imaging asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-sized CubeSat is moving on the DART launched in November 2021 and unfolds from the DART before the collision, so you can record what happened. Three minutes after the collision, CubeSat flies by Dimorphos to capture images and videos. The shocking video will be streamed to Earth.
Artemis 1's mission will also carry three serial box-sized CubeSatpulling vehicles into deep space. Separately, a small satellite measures hydrogen at the South Pole of the Moon, maps lunar water deposits, conducts a lunar fly-by, and studies particles and magnetic fields flowing from the Sun.

More Affordable Missions

The CAPSTONE mission relies on NASA partnerships with private companies such as Rocket Lab, Stella Exploration, Terran Orbital Corporation, and Advanced Space. doing. The Moon's mission was built for less than $ 30 million in less than three years using a fixed-price SME innovation research contract.

Larger missions can cost billions of dollars. According to a NASA audit, the Perseverance Rover currently exploring Mars costs more than $ 2 billion, and the estimated cost of the Artemis 1 mission is $ 4.1 billion.

These types of contracts expand opportunities for smaller, more affordable missions to the Moon and other destinations, while creating a framework for commercial support for future lunar operations. Baker said it could.

Baker's hope is that small spacecraft missions can speed up the pace of space exploration and scientific discovery-and CAPSTONE and the other CubeSats are just the beginning.

Correction: Earlier versions of this story did not have the correct release date.