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NASA enlists NZ help to return humans to the Moon

Peter Griffin, Editor. 28 June 2022, 7:29 am

NASA yesterday postponed the launch of its CAPSTONE satellite from Rocket Labs’ launchpad on the Mahia Peninsula.

But the US space agency’s collaboration with New Zealand has expanded, with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment signing an agreement enabling NASA to collaborate with University of Canterbury researchers.

NASA is aiming to send its microwave oven-sized satellite into orbit via Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. The satellite’s mission is to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit for Lunar Gateway, a planned space station will act as a Moon-orbiting outpost when NASA returns humans to the Moon as part of its Artemis programme. Yesterday it said it was postponing yesterday’s scheduled launch, to give Rocket Lab more time to run final systems checks.

It may attempt a launch as early as today, but has a window out to July 27 to launch the satellite to meet its schedule for having it in orbit around the Moon by the middle of November. The US$30 million CAPSTONE project is a relatively small but important one for NASA. It will take measurements about fuel and control requirements and test out navigation equipment in its extremely elliptical orbit around the Moon, which Lunar Gateway will one day inhabit.

NASA has a busy few years ahead for its lunar programme, with the Gateway space station scheduled to be launched into orbit around the Moon in 2024. Artemis I will see NASA’s Space Launch System put into orbit around the Moon in an uncrewed mission and could be underway by August. Artemis II will involve a crewed flyby of the moon in 2024 and in 2025, NASA plans to send astronauts to the Gateway space station and then have them touch down on the Moon’s surface.

Spotting space junk

Meanwhile, the Canterbury researchers are working on a new way to track spacecraft orbiting the Moon or between high Earth orbit and the Moon. As the Moon becomes a focal point for space exploration again, tracking orbiting spacecraft, and space debris that could interfere with them, will become increasingly important.

“At the most basic level, we are spotting space junk,” says Associate Professor Stephen Weddell, from the University of Canterbury’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“No one wants their lunar mission to be hit by space debris travelling faster than a speeding bullet in low Earth orbit. In a collision it could cause significant damage to a satellite and other spacecraft,” he says.

“Our method is based on photometry and employs specialised instrumentation, such as adaptive optics, to explore the extent to which we can use the natural properties of light and maximise the capability of our optical telescope at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand,” he adds.

University of Auckland and University of New South Wales researchers are also involved in the project.

The scientists say they intend to validate their observations and algorithms to predict spacecraft trajectories en route to the Moon and within lunar orbits against NASA’s CAPSTONE mission data.

New Zealand last month finalised its Space Framework agreement with NASA that allows the space agency to more easily fund collaborations with New Zealand companies and institutions. 


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