Moon Monday #102: CAPSTONE and SLS prep for rendezvous with Luna, and a load of exciting future mission updates

A public service announcement since Moon Monday is my most read space (pun intended): With everything happening at Twitter, many people are flocking to Mastodon and/or other platforms. As an open Web enthusiast who is on Mastodon and similar socials since years, I think that’s great but misses the point. As a writer who professionally depends on, benefits from, and leverages much more of what the open Web has to offer, I’m confident the only way to truly own your digital thoughts and the connection to your audience is to have a blog, which complements your digital social spaces by being a portable home for your longform, notable or curated thoughts. I’m familiar with nearly all modern blogging platforms so if you’d like to get started, I’m happy to help based on your needs and goals.

CAPSTONE gets ready to orbit the Moon

On October 3, the NASA-funded and Advanced Space-led CAPSTONE spacecraft completed its fourth trajectory correction maneuver when approaching the Moon from about 111,400 kilometers away. With two more maneuvers to follow soon, the spacecraft is on track for lunar orbital capture on November 13.

CAPSTONE’s last such maneuver was in early September, near the end of which the spacecraft started tumbling and put itself in safe mode. Over the next couple of weeks, teams recovered the spacecraft, determined a partially open valve in one of the eight thrusters to be the issue’s root cause, and uploaded new commands to ignore that thruster which successfully helped CAPSTONE regain full, 3-axis attitude control. Teams are operating the spacecraft keeping in mind the faulty valve so here’s hoping for a successful lunar orbital capture.

Illustration of the CAPSTONE spacecraft approaching the Moon. Credit: Advanced Space

NASA’s SLS rocket is on the launchpad again, hopefully for the last time

NASA transported the fully stacked SLS rocket to its launchpad on November 4. The agency is targeting launching SLS on November 14 for the much-awaited Artemis I mission to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. As part of the maintenance and repairs while the rocket stack was at its assembly building, NASA recharged batteries of several elements of the rocket and its payloads.

However, in an email following a media briefing last week NASA said that only four of the 10 CubeSats onboard Artemis IBioSentinel, NEA Scout, EQUULEUS and OMOTENASHI—have been recharged. Orion’s Stage Adapter structure prevents access to the other CubeSats, rendering them less likely to complete their missions since they were last charged last year. In retrospect, clearly it would’ve been better if NASA had accommodated these 14-kilogram CubeSats as secondary rideshares on other lunar missions just like the agency most recently did for Lunar Flashlight.

Only 4 out of 10 Artemis I CubeSats, all shown installed here on the Orion Stage Adapter ring above the connected SLS second stage, are guaranteed to attempt their missions nominally. Credits: NASA / Kevin O’Brien

Many thanks to Epsilon3 for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday.

Thanks also to Andrea Battisti and Henry Throop for supporting my independent writing.

Astrobotic’s first Moon landing mission past key preparation milestone

One of the most pressing causes of delay for Astrobotic’s first Moon landing mission part of NASA’s CLPS program has been its ride to space—the ULA Vulcan rocket—not being ready on time. Years later than expected, Blue Origin shipped the twin BE-4 engines to ULA in October, which together with the also recently received twin side boosters will power Vulcan’s first stage during the mission’s launch targeting Q1 2023.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines and the Vulcan rocket core stage. Credit: Tory Bruno

Now the major source holding back the launch could be Astrobotic’s lander itself, which though almost assembled is yet to go through the extensive space environmental testing process. Considering that ispace Japan’s similar first lunar lander targeting launch this month took about four months to complete its equivalent testing, the timeline looks pretty tight for a Q1 2023 launch.

Relatedly, Astrobotic announced last week that they have validated their terrain mapping and navigation system on Earth by mounting relevant hardware on a plane during a week-long lunar-like flight. Astrobotic is incorporating lessons from the test to better operations of its actual first Moon landing as well as to upgrade hardware on their second (CLPS) Moon mission which will deliver NASA’s water-studying VIPER rover to the Moon’s south pole in 2024.

Exciting progress on future missions

China’s Long March 2F rocket lifting off. Credit: Xinhua

Like the early days of forging and acting towards an ambitious goal, progress on pieces that will be part of future lunar missions intrigues and excites. Last week saw many such developments unfold.

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