The upcoming Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission will be the first spacecraft to fly a unique orbit around the Moon that will be used for Gateway, NASA’s future Moon-orbiting outpost. Gateway is an international collaboration working with commercial partners to establish a long-term human presence in deep space. Similarly, CAPSTONE – a mission owned and operated by Advanced Space, LLC in Westminster, Colorado – is made possible by collaborations with small businesses across the country, showing how NASA works with innovators in its future exploration endeavors.

“The upcoming launch of CAPSTONE shows what NASA’s partnership programs are all about,” said Karen Bradford, director of Strategic Partnerships at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “We’ve supported so many of the companies that are contributing their expertise to this project from their beginnings, it’s a real moment of victory for this model – showing how supporting early-stage innovations pays off in the long run.”

Multiple partner businesses contribute to CAPSTONE with support from NASA’s small business programs. Many of those partners got their start with support from NASA. A key software being tested on the mission – the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System (CAPS) – was developed by Advanced Space through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. CAPS will allow future spacecraft to determine their location without having to rely exclusively on tracking from Earth, allowing them to perform on their own without needing as much support from the ground.

Advanced Space’s work on CAPSTONE was supported by a NASA SBIR Phase III contract funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program. The company has also received support for other initiatives through NASA SBIR’s sister program, Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR). Many of the other partners on CAPSTONE are alums of NASA’s SBIR/STTR program as well. When CAPSTONE launches, it will demonstrate the advantages of NASA’s investments in small business collaborations and represent a starting point for the next stage of lunar exploration.

The NASA SBIR/STTR program aims to strengthen the role of small businesses in space and aeronautics industries by providing them with opportunities for funding and resources to develop key technologies; these efforts support NASA’s missions and bolster the U.S. economy. By providing support during these early stages of development, businesses supported by NASA’s SBIR/STTR program are able to grow and become established members of the space industry and partners on missions like CAPSTONE.

From Start-Up to Spaceflight

Advanced Space began working with the NASA SBIR program in 2015 and since then has received 18 SBIR/STTR contracts to fund a host of projects.

The CAPS technology received its first SBIR program seed funding of almost $125,000 in 2017 to demonstrate the ability for two satellites to communicate with each other using a simulated environment.

In 2018, the project received another phase of funding, with nearly $750,000 towards developing key software components to prepare CAPS for flight demonstrations, with the ultimate goal of using it on a mission to the Moon.

To date, Advanced Space has received more than $16 million in NASA  funding related to CAPS and is preparing to fulfill that goal. By partnering with NASA and others in the space industry, Advanced Space is demonstrating CAPS in a unique orbit around the Moon, paving the way for humanity’s future beyond Earth.

Collaborations from Across the Country

Advanced Space and NASA are not working alone. CAPSTONE is a collaborative endeavor, with contributions from experts in satellite design, propulsion, radio technology, and more.

The small satellite, or CubeSat, being used for the CAPSTONE mission was designed and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., a Terran Orbital Corporation, in Irvine, California. Terran Orbital’s contributions are supported in partnership with Advanced Space through its SBIR contract, and they are also a recipient of seven SBIR/STTR contracts with NASA for other projects.

The propulsion system was developed and built by another small business, Stellar Exploration, Inc. in San Luis Obispo, California, supported by an earlier $700,000 NASA SBIR grant for technology maturation. The radio systems were provided by Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) in Bothell, Washington, which has partnered with NASA since 1992 and has developed various other technologies under almost 50 NASA SBIR/STTR awards. The radios provided by TUI for CAPSTONE were developed under SBIR funding with the United States Air Force, demonstrating how SBIR technologies can benefit multiple agencies. 

The Chip Scale Atomic Clock (CSAC) hardware used by CAPSTONE is provided by Orion Space Solutions (OSS). While CSAC was not developed with NASA funding, OSS has prior experience working with NASA through multiple SBIR awards.

Even CAPSTONE’s liftoff will be made possible through another business that benefited from a prior small business award, with Rocket Lab USA, Inc. in Long Beach, California, using their launch complex in New Zealand to send the CubeSat beyond Earth. Rocket Lab received nearly $100,000 in SBIR funding from the Department of Defense in 2015.

“Every aspect of CAPSTONE has been put together in partnership with these small businesses from across the country,” said Bradford. “When CAPSTONE is flying in the orbit that Gateway will use, it’ll be because NASA chose to nurture some key innovators that paved the way.”

CAPSTONE is commercially owned and operated by Advanced Space in Westminster, Colorado. It represents an innovative collaboration between NASA and industry to provide rapid results and feedback to inform future exploration and science missions.  

NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) funds the demonstration mission. The program is based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The development of CAPSTONE’s navigation technology is supported by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program, also within STMD. The Artemis Campaign Development Division within NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate funds the launch and supports mission operations. The Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch.