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NASA’s lunar CAPSTONE CubeSat talks to Earth with a Utah-built space radio

Daniel Rutter
NASA illustration
A deep space radio built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory is operating successfully onboard a NASA CubeSat technology demonstration mission to support Gateway, a vital component of NASA's Artemis program.

While the Artemis I mission splashed down Dec. 11, another piece of equipment built by Utah engineers is still on a spacecraft orbiting the moon.

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory built a deep-space radio that is part of NASA’s mission to return astronauts to the moon. The microwave-sized spacecraft will spend the next several months orbiting the moon as part of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE for short. The mission will help NASA study what’s known as a near rectilinear halo orbit.

“The reason that NASA is interested in this particular orbit is it provides a near-continuous view of the Earth, which is important for communication purposes,” said Elwood Agasid, NASA’s deputy program manager for the small spacecraft program.

“When Gateway gets established in that particular orbit, then this allows NASA to have constant communication with Gateway,” Agasid added.

The Gateway will be a space station designed to orbit the moon and is a part of NASA’s Artemis program. CAPSTONE is the first spacecraft to fly this orbit, according to NASA, and will demonstrate whether it’s viable.

Agasid said the other benefit of this kind of orbit is that it doesn’t take a lot of energy to maintain.

The program manager for the mission at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Utah, Tim Neilsen, said CAPSTONE is trailblazing this new orbit.

“Verifying that it’s safe and that all of our analyses for the orbit are correct before we start sending more equipment and eventually, the most valuable thing is the astronauts that’ll be up,” Neilsen said.

The CAPSTONE spacecraft is called a “CubeSat.”. Neilsen said the deep-space radio his team built is what allows it to communicate with Earth. Mission operators can send the spacecraft instructions and it can send information back home.

“Its job is to sort of be like the modem, the connection to the internet,” Nielsen said. “It’s the connection back to mission operators here on the group to command and control the spacecraft.”

The Space Dynamics Laboratory radio is called the Iris Radio. Agasid said they are designed for extended space missions and used for almost all of NASA’s deep space exploration. The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory created the design and then gave it to the North Logan-based contractor in 2016 to meet manufacturing demands.

“The Space Dynamics Lab is building all those radios for NASA,” he said. “These X-band radios operate in that frequency range that are utilized by our deep space network to support all our deep space missions, missions that go to the moon, missions that go to mars and then missions that are used for space exploration.”

Nielsen said Space Dynamics Laboratory provided the radio and did some telecommunications consulting for this mission, but NASA will be handling the mission from here. The CAPSTONE CubeSat entered its lunar orbit in November, and Agasid said the primary mission will last about six months.

“Then assuming that things are operational, we’ll continue with the extended experiments and that could go for an additional year,” Agasid said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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