NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft, which is now orbiting the Moon, has taken the first pictures of Earth’s closest neighbor. The probe was built for NASA by the American company Advanced Space. It was created to help the space agency to lay the foundation for the future Gateway space station, which would be launched into orbit of the Moon as part of the Artemis program.
CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) is testing a unique orbit around the Moon, known as the “near rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO), on which Gateway will be located. The NRHO has a very elliptical shape and is located at the exact balance point of the gravitations of the Earth and the Moon. Staying in this orbit requires little energy, which provides long-term stability for future outposts.
Thanks to this orbit, the spacecraft approaches one pole of the Moon at a distance of 17.7 thousand km, and then moves away at a distance of 70 thousand km from the other pole every seven days. It was during a close flyby of the North Pole that a microwave-sized satellite photographed the moon’s surface for the first time. This happened on May 3, 2023. Six days later, the CAPSTONE team used the satellite to test a navigation technology called CAPS, which is similar to GPS on Earth.
During the experiment on May 9, CAPSTONE teamed up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been orbiting the Moon since 2009. The probe sent a signal to the LRO, which returned back to the tiny cubesat, which made it possible to measure the distance and relative velocity between the two probes. The test on May 9 took place just a few days before the six-month anniversary of CAPSTONE’s launch into lunar orbit.
The six-month deadline fell on May 13. Thus, the main mission of the small space probe was officially completed. But tests show that CAPSTONE is still able to contribute to NASA’s further efforts to explore the Moon, so the probe’s mission has been extended.
Earlier we reported on how NASA had lost contact with the CAPSTONE satellite.
According to NASA
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