Watch the successful launch of the CAPSTONE satellite on the Rocket Lab Electron rocket

Microwave-size spacecraft launches to test new orbit between Earth and the moon

(CNN) A tiny spacecraft with big implications for lunar exploration has launched.

The miniscule satellite, called a CubeSat, is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds (25 kilograms), but it will be the first to test out a unique, elliptical lunar orbit. The CubeSat will act as a pathfinder for Gateway, an orbiting lunar outpost that will serve as a way station between Earth and the moon for astronauts.
The orbit, which is called a near rectilinear halo orbit, is very elongated and provides stability for long-term missions while requiring little energy to maintain — which is exactly what the Gateway will need. The orbit exists at a balanced point in the gravities of the moon and Earth.
The mission, called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, and known as CAPSTONE, lifted off the launchpad Tuesday at 5:55 a.m. ET. The CubeSat launched aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
It will reach the orbit point within three months and then spend the next six months in orbit. The spacecraft can provide more data about power and propulsion requirements for the Gateway.

CAPSTONE is seen over the lunar north pole in this illustration.

The CubeSat’s orbit will bring the spacecraft within 1,000 miles (1,609.3 kilometers) of one lunar pole at its closest pass and within 43,500 miles (70,006.5 kilometers) from the other pole every seven days. Using this orbit will be more energy efficient for spacecraft flying to and from the Gateway since it requires less propulsion than more circular orbits.
The miniature spacecraft will also be used to test out communication capabilities with Earth from this orbit, which has the advantage of a clear view of Earth while also providing coverage for the lunar south pole — where the first Artemis astronauts are expected to land in 2025.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbit, which has been circling the moon for 13 years, will provide a reference point for CAPSTONE. The two spacecraft will communicate directly with each other, allowing teams on the ground to measure the distance between each one and home in on CAPSTONE’s exact location.
The collaboration between the two spacecraft can test CAPSTONE’s autonomous navigation software, called CAPS, or the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System. If this software performs as expected, it could be used by future spacecraft without relying on tracking from Earth.
“The CAPSTONE mission is a valuable precursor not just for Gateway, but also for the Orion spacecraft and the Human Landing System,” said Nujoud Merancy, chief of NASA’s Exploration Mission Planning Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “Gateway and Orion will use the data from CAPSTONE to validate our model, which will be important for operations and planning for the future mission.”

Small satellites on big missions

The CAPSTONE mission is a rapid, low-cost demonstration with the intent to help lay a foundation for future small spacecraft, said Christopher Baker, the small spacecraft technology program executive at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Small missions that can be put together and launched quickly at lower cost means that they can take chances that larger, more expensive missions can’t.
“So often on a flight test, you learn as much, if not more, from failure than you do from success. We can afford to take more risk, knowing that there’s a probability of failure, but that we can accept that failure in order to move into advanced capabilities,” Baker said. “In this case, failure is an option.”
The lessons from smaller CubeSat missions can inform larger missions down the line — and CubeSats have already been setting out for more challenging destinations than low-Earth orbit.
When NASA’s InSight lander was on its nearly seven-month trip to Mars in 2018, it wasn’t alone. Two suitcase-size spacecraft, called MarCO, followed InSight on its journey. They were the first cube satellites to fly into deep space.
During InSight’s entry, descent and landing, the MarCO satellites received and transmitted communication from the lander to let NASA know that InSight was safely on the surface of the red planet. They were nicknamed EVE and WALL-E, for the robots from the 2008 Pixar film.
The fact that the tiny satellites made it to Mars, flying behind InSight through space, excited engineers. The CubeSats kept flying beyond Mars after InSight landed, but fell silent by the end of the year. But MarCO was an excellent test of how CubeSats can tag along on bigger missions.
These tiny but mighty spacecraft will again serve a supporting role in September, when the DART mission, or the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, will deliberately crash into the moonlet Dimorphos as it orbits near-Earth asteroid Didymos to change the motion of the asteroid in space.
The collision will be recorded by LICIACube, or Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids, a companion cube satellite provided by the Italian Space Agency. The briefcase-size CubeSat is traveling on DART, which launched in November 2021, and will be deployed from it prior to impact so it can record what happens. Three minutes after the impact, the CubeSat will fly by Dimorphos to capture images and video. The video of the impact will be streamed back to Earth.
The Artemis I mission will also carry three cereal box-size CubeSats that are hitching a ride to deep space. Separately, the tiny satellites will measure hydrogen at the moon’s south pole and map lunar water deposits, conduct a lunar flyby, and study particles and magnetic fields streaming from the sun.

More affordable missions

The CAPSTONE mission relies on NASA’s partnership with commercial companies like Rocket Lab, Stellar Exploration, Terran Orbital Corporation and Advanced Space. The lunar mission was built using a fixed-price small business innovative research contract — in under three years and for under $30 million.
Larger missions can cost billions of dollars. The Perseverance rover, currently exploring on Mars, cost more than $2 billion and the Artemis I mission has an estimated cost of $4.1 billion, according to an audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General.
These kinds of contracts can expand the opportunities for small, more affordable missions to the moon and other destinations while creating a framework for commercial support of future lunar operations, Baker said.
Baker’s hope is that small spacecraft missions can increase the pace of space exploration and scientific discovery — and CAPSTONE and other CubeSats are just the beginning.

Terms of Use & Disclaimers

Cookie Notice

Cookies are small files that are stored on your device when you visit a website. We use cookies to do a number of things such as remember your preferences, enable certain features of our Website you may choose to use, and analyze in an aggregated manner visitor activity on our Website. Cookies do not themselves store information that identifies you, but they are often used in a manner that they can be associated with you. There are other similar technical means that serve a similar purpose such as web beacons and our reference to cookies is intended to cover these as well.

Here are the types of cookies you may encounter in using our Website:

Strictly Necessary – these are required by our website to perform certain functions such as allowing you to log in to an account;

Functional – these help to improve your experience by doing things like remembering certain preferences you have set; and

Analytic – these are used to analyze, in an aggregated manner, the way our Website is used so that we can improve the Website and our offerings. We use Google Analytics for this purpose.

Terms of Use and Disclaimers

Terran Orbital Corporation Website User Agreement and Disclaimers

Please read the following terms and conditions carefully before using this Website or any of our other Websites. By accessing or using our sites, you agree to the following terms and conditions. You should review these terms and conditions regularly as they may change at any time at our sole discretion. If you do not agree to any term or condition, you should not access or otherwise use our sites. The following terms and conditions apply to all of our Websites, including any Websites owned, operated or sponsored by any of our subsidiaries or affiliates. Together with our subsidiaries and affiliates, we may be referred to herein as the “Company.” “Content” refers to any materials, documents, images, graphics, logos, design, audio, video and any other information provided from or on our Websites.

  • We Provide Our Website for Your Convenience Only

Our Website is provided to you without charge as a convenience and for your information only. By merely providing access to our Website content, we do not warrant or represent that:

  • the content is accurate or complete;

  • the content is up-to-date or current;

  • we have a duty to update any content;

  • the content is free from technical inaccuracies or typographical errors;

  • the content is free from changes caused by third party; and

  • your access to our Website will be free from interruptions, errors, computer viruses or other harmful components.

We do not assume any liability for these matters. In other words, you use our Web site at your own risk. Under no circumstances, including, but not limited to, negligence, shall we be liable for any direct or indirect, special, incidental or consequential damages. This includes loss of data or profit arising out of the use or the inability to use the content of this Website, even if one of our representatives has been advised of the possibility of your damages. If your use of our Website results in your need to service, repair or correct equipment or data, you assume the costs to the extent the law allows. Some jurisdictions do not allow the exclusion or limitation of liability for consequential or incidental damages. In such jurisdictions, our liability is limited to the greatest extent permitted by law.

We Provide Our Website “As Is” and Disclaim All Warranties

Our Website content is provided “as is” and without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. We disclaim all warranties, express or implied, including, but not limited to, implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for any particular purpose, or non-infringement.

We Do Not Have Responsibility for Links to Third–Party Content

We may provide hyperlinks or pointers to other Websites maintained by third parties or may provide third–party content on our Website by framing or other methods. The links to third party Websites are provided for your convenience and information only. The content in any linked Websites is not under our control so we are not responsible for the content, including any further links in a third-party site. If you decide to access any of the third-party sites linked to our Website, you do this entirely at your own risk. It is up to you to take precautions to ensure that the third party you link to for your use is free of computer viruses, worms, trojan horses and other items of a destructive nature.

If We Provide a Link, We Do Not Necessarily Endorse A Third Party

We reserve the right to terminate a link to a third-party Website at any time. The fact that we provide a link to a third-party Website does not mean that we endorse, authorize or sponsor that Website. It also does not mean that we are affiliated with the third-party Website’s owners or sponsors.

If a Third Party Links to Our Website, It is Not An Endorsement

If a third party links to our Website, it is not necessarily an indication of an endorsement, authorization, sponsorship, affiliation, joint venture or partnership by or with us. In most cases, we are not aware that a third party has linked to our Website.

A Website that links to our Website:

  • May link to, but not replicate, our content;

  • Should not create a browser, border environment or frame our content;

  • Should not imply that we are endorsing it or its products;

  • Should not misrepresent its relationship with us;

  • Should not present false information about our products or services; and

  • Should not contain content that could be construed as distasteful, offensive or controversial, and should contain only content that is appropriate for all age groups.

  • If You Transmit or Provide Data to Us, It is Non-Confidential

We do not want to receive confidential or proprietary information from you through our Website. If you transmit to or post on our Website any material, data, information or idea by any means, it will be treated as non-confidential and non-proprietary and may be disseminated or used by us for any purpose. Personal data provided to us will be handled in accordance with our policies regarding privacy.

You are not authorized to post on or transmit to or from our Website any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, scandalous, inflammatory, pornographic, or profane material, or any other content that could give rise to any civil or criminal liability under the law.

Your Use of Our Website is Restricted

Copyright © 2014-2018 Terran Orbital Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Our Website and its content are owned and operated by us. The text, images, graphics, sound files, animation files, video files, and their arrangement on our Website is all subject to copyright and other intellectual property protection.

Our Website’s content is copyrighted and protected by U.S. and worldwide copyright laws and treaty provisions. In addition, our Website content is protected by trademark laws, the laws of privacy and publicity, and communications regulations and statutes.

No content from www.TerranOrbital.com, or any other Website owned, operated, licensed or controlled by us may be copied, reproduced, republished, modified, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way. You also may not, without our permission, “mirror” any material contained on our Website on any other server. The sole exceptions to these restrictions are:

  • You obtain written permission from us to waive these restrictions; or

  • You may download one copy of the content on a single computer for informational, non-commercial and personal use only, provided you keep intact all copyright and other proprietary notices and do not modify, and will not copy or post, the content on any network computer or broadcast in any media.

Violation of these restrictions will be a violation of one or more laws and is expressly prohibited by law. If you violate these restrictions, you may be subject to civil and criminal penalties. If we grant you permission to waive these restrictions, the permission terminates automatically if you breach any of these terms or conditions. Upon termination, you must immediately destroy any downloaded materials and printed materials.

The following is a non-exclusive list of registered trademarks, registered service marks, or trademarks or service marks of the Company, in the United States and/or other countries or jurisdictions:

Terran Orbital Corporation; Terran Orbital; Tyvak; Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems; Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc.; Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC; Agile Space

The configuration and design of the satellites featured on our Website may also be protected by registered patents and/or trademarks of the Company.

To the extent a name, logo or design does not appear on the above list, such lack of appearance does not constitute a waiver of any intellectual property rights that the Company has established in its product or service names or logos, or in product configurations or designs, all of which rights are expressly reserved.

By Providing Content, We Do Not Allow You to Use Our Trademarks

The trademarks, service marks and logos of the Company used and displayed on our Website are our registered and unregistered trademarks.  Nothing on this Website should be construed as granting, by implication, estoppel, or otherwise, any license or right to use any of our trademarks without our written permission. Requests to use trademarks owned by other companies which may be mentioned on this Website should be directed to such other companies. We aggressively enforce our intellectual property rights. The name of the Company or our logos may not be used in any way, including in advertising or publicity pertaining to distribution of materials on our Website, without prior written permission. You are not authorized to use our logo as a hyperlink to our Website unless you obtain our written permission in advance.

You Must Obey Local Laws in Accessing Our Web Site

This site is controlled by us from our offices within the United States of America. We make no representation that content or materials in the site are appropriate or available for use in other jurisdictions. Access to our Website content or materials from jurisdictions where such access is illegal or prohibited. If you choose to access this site from other jurisdictions, you do so on your own initiative and are responsible for compliance with applicable local laws. We are not responsible for any law violations. You may not use or export the materials in this site in violation of U.S. export laws and regulations. Any claims relating to our Website and its content and materials shall be governed by the laws of the State of California without giving effect to any principles of conflicts of laws. You agree that any legal action or proceeding between us for any purpose concerning this Agreement or the parties’ obligations shall be brought exclusively in a federal or state court in California.

You are Bound by Changes in this Agreement’s Terms and Conditions

We may at any time revise these terms and conditions by updating this posting. By using our Website, you agree to be bound by any such revisions and should therefore periodically visit this page to determine the then current Terran Orbital WebSite User Agreement and Disclaimers to which you are bound. Certain provisions of these terms and conditions may be superseded by other legal notices or terms located on parts of our Website. In the event of a conflict between the terms and conditions of this Agreement and the terms and conditions of any other written agreement between Terran Orbital and its customers or vendors, the express terms and conditions of the latter agreement shall prevail.

You Agree to Indemnify Us for Using OurWebSite

You agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless Terran Orbital, its officers, directors, employees, agents, licensors, suppliers and any third-party information providers to us from and against all losses, expenses, damages and costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees, resulting from any violation of this Agreement by you.

Third Parties May Have Rights Under This Agreement

Some of the provisions of this Agreement are for the benefit of Terran Orbital and its officers, directors, employees, agents, licensors, and suppliers. Each of these individuals or entities shall have the right to assert and enforce those provisions directly against you on its own behalf.

How This Agreement May Be Terminated

This Agreement may be terminated by either party without notice at any time for any reason; provided that you may no longer use our Website after you have terminated this Agreement. Provisions which by their nature are to survive this Agreement, including, but not limited to, Sections 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, and 12 of this Agreement, shall survive any termination of this Agreement.

Miscellaneous

Our failure to insist upon or enforce strict performance of any provision of this Agreement shall not be construed as a waiver of any provision or right. Neither the course of conduct between the parties nor trade practice shall act to modify any provision of this Agreement. We may assign our rights and duties under this Agreement to any party at any time without notice to you.