The very first cubesats intended to investigate the moon will launch later this year, with more on the way in the coming years. Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) cubesat of NASA is set to launch on the Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the New Zealand in the 4th quarter of this year. The cubesat (12-unit) will evaluate the stability of NASA’s around-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), which will be used for lunar Gateway, a crucial component of the Artemis lunar exploration program.
According to Thomas Gardner, the launch is now slated for late October or even early November, who works at the Advanced Space as a director of engineering and the program manager for the CAPSTONE, who spoke at the annual Small Satellite Conference (35th) on August 9. Unspecified “challenges” with lunar Photon upper stage, which Rocket Lab would employ for the CAPSTONE mission, could cause a delay, he warned.
By connecting with Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, the primary goal of CAPSTONE is to ratify that orbit and test a navigation system. It will also show a cubesat’s ability to work in cislunar space: CAPSTONE will be the very first cubesat in the cislunar space, according to Gardner, if it does stick to its current flight schedule.
Others will shortly join it. Artemis 1, the Space Flight System’s first launch, delivers 13 cubesats as the secondary payloads. Lunar IceCube, LunaH-Map, Lunar Flashlight, and LunIR are among the six-unit cubesats dedicated to lunar research. Many of the lunar cubesats are looking for more proof of water ice on moon, that could be a valuable resource for potential human exploration.
According to Andres Martinez, those cubesats are currently being mounted aboard the SLS, NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division’s program executive for the small satellite missions, who spoke at the NASA town hall event during the convention on August 9. Artemis 1 will be released in late November at the earliest.
These aren’t the sole cubesat missions set to go to the moon in the coming years. The Lunar Volatile and Mineralogy Mapping Orbiter, or VMMO, is a cubesat mission developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), which completed Phase A research financed by European Space Agency.
In an August 9 conference presentation, Samantha Rowe, who is an engineer at SSTL, said that VMMO would pursue some of the prior cubesat missions to check for water ice concentrations at the lunar south pole. It’s a 12-unit cubesat with a lidar instrument that will map any water ice with greater resolution than cubesats on Artemis 1. There will also be a demonstration of cubesat technology. “The mission will provide an excellent opportunity to assess cubesat components in a lunar environment,” she stated.