Test cubesat to launch to Gateway lunar orbit


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NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Systems to build a cubesat to test placement and operation in the orbit the agency wishes to place its Lunar Gateway space station.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

While proving the capability of cubesats for these unmanned planetary probes is all to the good, I must once again point out that making this orbit a way station on the way to the Moon actually makes it more difficult to get there. More fuel and equipment is required to transfer to the Moon once you are in Gateway’s planned orbit.

Based on our past experience with NASA boondoggles like this, Gateway will therefore act as a drag on future American lunar exploration. While other nations (China, India) will be landing on the surface, we will repeatedly find that our surface missions are delayed because of the added complexity of going from Earth to Gateway and then to the surface.

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12 comments

  • Edward

    The following is a commentary defending the Gateway concept, though the author thinks the name was poorly chosen.

    https://spacenews.com/op-ed-nasa-must-shift-its-focus-to-infrastructure-and-capabilities-that-support-dynamic-missions/
    Today’s reality is that NASA has a new launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, approaching testing. SLS currently suffers from the lack of a reasonably powered upper stage engine. We also have Orion, a very capable deep space crew capsule that while twice the capacity and weight of an Apollo Command Module is saddled with a service module offering about one-fourth the thrust. The combined SLS Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and Service Module are frustratingly incapable of delivering an Orion crew to low lunar orbit and returning them to Earth, making a direct moon landing impossible. Further distressing is the fact that SLS and Orion seem to be perennially “nearly ready to fly” and over budget, prompting a scathing review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that surely spurred recent moves of key personnel.

    I’m disappointed that the reason for Gateway is ‘it’s all that we have.’

    I personally argued against the name Gateway because I felt it was a limiting description of a very versatile vehicle. Worse, Gateway allowed this resource to be incorrectly framed as a choke point by the inevitable detractors. I felt ‘Deep Space Ship’ would better highlight the mobility and flexibility of this platform which can move to a variety of cislunar orbits, including leaving the moon to swing through accessible Earth orbits (geostationary transfer orbit, for instance) and back to the moon.

    Later he mentions that it is not such a good ship for moving humans around cislunar space, as it moves slowly with its low-power thruster.

    A Gateway-derived system could be placed in Martian orbit, with components delivered by existing commercial rockets, equipped with a refuelable upper stage engine and aerobraking to enter orbit.

    When start planning to go there, that is when we will be able to decide what we really need there in order to match the rest of what we plan on doing and building. We will know even more about what we need there once we get there and reality rears its ugly head.

  • Dick Eagleson

    As initial operational capability of SpaceX’s SHS draws ever nearer, what NASA does anent SLS and Gateway appear to be increasingly irrelevant. Gateway may, in fact, never be deployed. But if it is, it will probably wind up in the same limbo as a new gas station or restaurant built along Route 66 just before construction started on I-40.

  • Dick Eagleson: Do not underestimate the ability of NASA’s bureaucracy, the big space contractors, and Congress to manipulate the situation such that SpaceX is eventually blocked from doing what it wants. They’ve done it before. If threatened they will do it again. In fact, it seems to me they are doing it now by distributing these Gateway contracts all over the place in order to create allies, all of whom whose vested interests will be locked to SLS and Gateway and thus threatened if Starship/Super Heavy makes them irrelevant.

    Based on the corruption I’ve seen coming out of Washington in the past ten years, from tampered climate data to the abuse of government power to try to overthrow an election, blocking SpaceX would be a minor game.

  • Kyke

    They will do everything they can to block SpaceX. Congress, all of NASA especially planetary protection and SLS, except science directorate. But Musk is great at getting public backing to force it through. Every live test on YouTube, tweet, interview, gets public interest.

  • mpthompson

    I agree with Kyke. Musk is playing the long game by being very open with his development and is making the gamble he can gain enough momentum and goodwill in the public sphere that he can draw upon this goodwill to at least not be blocked when government bureaucrats attempt to put the brakes on SpaceX. Regarding SLS and Gateway, that is another matter. Stupid is as stupid does.

    However, these still seem like treacherous times for SpaceX as they are clearly threatening the swap creatures within Washington and their plans to milk SLS and Gateway for all they can. If SpaceX seriously stumbles the swamp creatures will attack without mercy to pull SpaceX down before too much momentum is gained.

  • Edward

    Kyke wrote: “They will do everything they can to block SpaceX. Congress, all of NASA especially planetary protection and SLS, except science directorate. But Musk is great at getting public backing to force it through. Every live test on YouTube, tweet, interview, gets public interest.

    I am reminded of the Starman live video, which included some views of the Earth. The spiteful government seemed to get a bee in its bonnet about the video and tried to enforce some law about views of Earth, in a silly way that was outside the intention of that law. Some time later, an embarrassed government relented on its abuse of the law, because there is no requirement on what dead weight is used during a rocket test, and photographs of Earth are not prohibited.

    I am not overly worried about the rise of commercial space. Between the dramatic reduction in launch costs shown by SpaceX, the dramatic reduction in satellite and probe costs shown by Cubesats and other small satellites, and the reduction in launch costs and the ability to provide specific orbits shown by Rocket Lab, government space programs are already looking unnecessarily expensive. In the near future, as commercial space stations come online, commercial research will also show that the ISS is another unnecessarily expensive program.

    One of the beautiful aspects of commercial space is that since the taxpayer (of whatever country) does not foot the bill, the only people who have a valid reason to complain about spending money on space are the investors in the commercial operation, and presumably they have invested because they are enthusiastic about the operation. Although the recent fiasco with Vector shows us that investors can become dissatisfied.

    Robert,
    SpaceX has won out over the big space contractors before, when they were approved by the Air Force to launch their payloads. It may be a tough battle, but it seems that with perseverance and cleverness, we can fight and win against city hall (e.g. https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/the-evening-pause/joe-lycett-parking-ticket-story/ ).

    Then again, fine words butter no parsnips.
    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fine_words_butter_no_parsnips#Proverb

    Finally, I am not worried about NASA. It has shown that it is on the side of commercial space, with its CRS and CCDev programs, and it is still a pure organization untouched by politics. Surely they would not try to undermine Bigelow, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, or other commercial operations due to politics such as being shown up by commercial space, which can get so much more done for the buck than NASA has been able to do over the past few decades. NASA wouldn’t do anything that messes with efficiency or effectiveness, and they wouldn’t tamper with data in order to suggest that reality is different than it is.

    Oh, wait. Didn’t NASA also change temperature data in order for the published data to better match the predictions made by climate models, models that were embraced by politicians, many of whom use bad names on anyone who disagrees with them about climate? Hmm. That sounds, to me, like changing reality for political purposes. I am worried about NASA. Forget what I wrote in these last two paragraphs. We may be doomed after all.

  • pzatchok

    So NASA plans on risking trashing up their primary orbit just to give some small company a cube sat contract?

    Either they don’t care about the particular orbit or they think this cube sat will work perfect and never tank. All it has to do is lose communication and it will not be able to move out of orbit. And if its in a constantly decreasing orbit why waste 13 million plus dollars on a temporary one use machine?

  • pzatchok: From what I understand, there aren’t really any stable lunar orbits because of the uneven mass distribution inside the Moon. This Gateway orbit might be the most stable, but without careful orbital adjustments, this cubesat will probably not stay there for long.

  • Richard M

    HellO Robert,

    Well there *are* the so-called “frozen” orbits – they require zero station-keeping – but they are in Low Lunar orbit, which of course means that the Orion CSM does not have sufficient delta-v to reach, because it’s so underpowered…

    A Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO/NRO) requires pretty modest station-keeping (yearly average of only 2.6 m/s), which was one of the reasons it was chosen. Presumably, this is one of the things (station-keeping) they want to see the cubesat undertake.

    I don’t think one cubesat will amount to “trashing up” the orbit, per pzatchok’s complaint. I mean, this is a huge orbit, with perilune radii ranging to over 17,000 km. I think the cubesat as a exploration precursor is actually a nifty, cheap idea on NASA’s part. It’s the Gateway that’s a bad idea (as I think we all agree here). Anyway, it only operates for 6 months, and then I believe there’s a disposal stipulation in the contract anyway.

  • Richard M

    Hello Edward,

    “I am worried about NASA. Forget what I wrote in these last two paragraphs. We may be doomed after all.”

    I suppose what hope I cling to is that while SpaceX is not as well protected on the Hill as SLS (or ULA) obviously is, it is acquiring arguably just enough protection from congressional delegations in CA, TX, and FL thanks to its growing operations (and thus, workforces) in all these states, to give it some maneuvering room. We’ve seen some evidence of these protectors showing increasing energy on SpaceX’s behalf in the current Congress.

    But stay tuned. We shall see.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    I was being a little bit sarcastic, but I don’t think that the upstart startup commercial space companies have as much support from NASA and government as we would like. Clearly, there are supporters within NASA, and three presidents have supported the idea of depending more on commercial companies for space access (and now space research), so I think that commercial space is not as doomed as I suggested.

    Until commercial space has more commercial customers than government customers, we will probably continue to see struggles similar to those we have had in the past few years. NewSpace is trying to do things in a different way than OldSpace, which many have become comfortable with. The old ways have developed over the past half century or so in order to avoid disasters. The new ways may need occasional correction, but it is clear that we need more efficient and effective methods for reaching, working in, and living in space.

  • pzatchok

    My comments about trashing up the orbit were really just me being a bit snarky.

    I was pretty sure that by the time NASA gets around to putting something else in orbit around the Moon everything in any orbit now will have fallen out of orbit.

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