CAPSTONE Forges New Path for NASA’s Future Artemis Moon Missions

An illustration of NASA's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE.

An illustration of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE. Credit: NASA/Daniel Rutte.

NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft has completed final maneuvers to place it in its target orbit around the Moon.

The spacecraft is now in the operational phase of its pathfinding mission, during which it will test an orbit key to future Artemis missions and demonstrate new technologies for spacecraft operating near the Moon.

CAPSTONE — short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment — is a technology demonstration designed to prove the reliability of new capabilities so that they can be used in future missions. CAPSTONE is the first spacecraft to fly in a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) and the first CubeSat to operate at the Moon. This orbit is the same planned for Gateway, an upcoming Moon-orbiting space station that will support NASA’s Artemis missions. CAPSTONE will gather data on this orbit for at least six months to support Gateway’s operational planning.

CAPSTONE took a four-month journey from launch to orbit — overcoming challenges related to communications and propulsion along the way — and performed an initial orbit insertion maneuver on November 13. In the following days, the CAPSTONE mission operations team, led by Advanced Space of Westminster, Colorado, analyzed data from the spacecraft to confirm it was in the expected orbit and carried out two clean-up maneuvers to refine its track.

In addition to studying this unique orbit, CAPSTONE’s mission also includes two technology demonstrations that could be used by future spacecraft. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is a navigational software developed by Advanced Space that would allow spacecraft operating near the Moon to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth. CAPSTONE will demonstrate this technology by communicating directly with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2009. CAPSTONE will also demonstrate one-way ranging using a chip-scale atomic clock, which could allow spacecraft to determine their position in space without the need for a dedicated downlink to ground stations.

CAPSTONE is commercially owned and operated by Advanced Space. It represents an innovative collaboration between NASA and private industry to provide rapid results and feedback to inform future exploration and science missions. The spacecraft was designed and built by Terran Orbital. Operations are performed jointly by teams at Advanced Space and Terran Orbital. The mission is also supported by Stellar Exploration, Space Dynamics Laboratory, Orion Space Solutions, Tethers Unlimited, Inc., and Morehead State University.

Learn more about CAPSTONE at