Lunar cubesats head to the launch pad

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WASHINGTON — The first cubesats designed to study the moon are scheduled to launch late this year, with more in development in the next few years.

NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) cubesat is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of this year on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand. The 12-unit cubesat will test the stability of the near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) that NASA plans to use for the lunar Gateway, a key part of its Artemis program of lunar exploration.

Thomas Gardner, director of engineering at Advanced Space and program manager for CAPSTONE, said during a session of the 35th annual Small Satellite Conference Aug. 9 that the launch is currently scheduled for late October or early November. That could be delayed, he said, by unspecified “challenges” with the lunar Photon upper stage that Rocket Lab will use for the CAPSTONE launch.

The primary purpose of CAPSTONE is to validate that orbit as well as test a navigation system by communicating with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. It will also demonstrate the ability of a cubesat to operate in cislunar space: Gardner said that CAPSTONE, if it sticks to its current launch schedule, will be the first cubesat in cislunar space.

It will soon have company. The inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, Artemis 1, is carrying 13 cubesats as secondary payloads. Several of those six-unit cubesats are devoted to lunar studies, including LunaH-Map, Lunar Flashlight, Lunar IceCube and LunIR. A key focus for many of those lunar cubesats is to look for additional evidence of water ice on the moon, which could be a key resource for future human exploration.

Those cubesats are being installed on the SLS now, said Andres Martinez, program executive for small satellite missions in NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, at a NASA town hall meeting during the conference Aug. 9. Artemis 1 is scheduled for launch no earlier than late November.

Those are not the only cubesat missions planned for the moon in the next several years. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) is working on a cubesat mission called the Lunar Volatile and Mineraology Mapping Orbiter, or VMMO, that recently completed a Phase A study funded by the European Space Agency.

VMMO will follow up on some of the previous cubesat missions to look for water ice deposits at the lunar south pole, said Samantha Rowe, an engineer at SSTL, in an Aug. 9 conference presentation. It is a 12-unit cubesat that will carry a lidar instrument designed to map any water ice at higher resolutions than the cubesats flying on Artemis 1.

It will also be a cubesat technology demonstration. “The mission itself will be a great opportunity to test cubesat components in the lunar environment,” she said.

Rowe said SSTL hopes to launch VMMO in late 2023 or early 2024. While the company originally proposed flying it with Lunar Pathfinder, a lunar communications satellite it is developing, she said the company is considering alternative launch options, such as flying as a secondary payload on a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services lander mission.