LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) – A deep space radio built by Utah State University‘s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) is now orbiting the moon as part of a first-of-its-kind program in human history.
The radio is part of a NASA mission called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment — or “CAPSTONE.” The USU-designed radio is onboard a class of small satellites called “CubeSat,” the first to orbit the moon in the history of humankind.
NASA said CAPSTONE’s mission is to reduce risks for future spacecraft by validating new navigation technologies and gathering new knowledge about its own unique three-body orbit. The mission is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon, exploring more of the lunar surface than ever before. Humans last walked on the moon in 1972.
USU’s deep space radio is now operating successfully onboard a NASA CubeSat technology demonstration mission to support Gateway, which is a vital component of Artemis. The Gateway Program is building a small, human-tended space station orbiting the Moon to provide support for Artemis.
NASA’s website states, “Gateway’s capabilities for supporting sustained exploration and research in deep space include docking ports for a variety of visiting spacecraft, space for crew to live and work, and on-board science investigations to study heliophysics, human health, and life sciences, among other areas.”
The CAPSTONE spacecraft entered a lunar orbit following a final maneuver at 5:39 p.m. on Nov. 13, making history as the first CubeSat to orbit Earth’s moon in a mission owned and operated by Advanced Space for NASA.
The Space Dynamics Lab-built Iris Radio onboard CAPSTONE reportedly carries critical information between the satellite and operators on Earth. Its “telecommunication subsystem” is designed specifically for orbits of altitudes greater than 1,500 kilometers above Earth.
The USU lab built the Iris Radio to perform in extreme temperatures and radiation environments of lunar orbit.
There is reportedly a lot riding on this small spacecraft, which weighs about 25 kilograms and measures approximately 24 centimeters by 24 centimeters by 36 centimeters — close to the size of a microwave oven. Officials are calling the CAPSTONE CubeSat a “pathfinder mission” for the Lunar Gateway.
Gateway’s “quasi-stable, 3-body orbit” keeps the spacecraft at a precise balancing point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon. When operational, Gateway will provide critical support for humankind’s long-term return to the lunar surface and will be a staging point for deep space exploration.
The solar electric propulsion spacecraft will also reportedly include a Habitation and Logistics Outpost, known as HALO, that will be the initial crew cabin for astronauts visiting Gateway.
“The significant increase in small satellites such as CAPSTONE being used for deep space missions necessitates robust and reliable communications systems like the Iris Radio, which can transmit data to NASA’s Deep Space Network and other international ground networks,” says Tim Neilsen, CAPSTONE program manager. “The CAPSTONE Iris Radio will also perform ranging functions to help the spacecraft navigate around its new orbit. SDL builds and tests Iris Radio technology in our NASA-certified facilities, and we are proud to support this important pathfinder mission for the Lunar Gateway and Artemis program.”
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) created the Iris Radio’s initial design and transitioned further development and manufacturing to SDL in 2016. JPL named the radio after the Greek mythological goddess Iris, daughter of Thaumas and Electra and messenger of the gods.
Since 1959, SDL has been solving the technical challenges faced by the military, science community, and industry and supports NASA’s mission to drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth. SDL is a research laboratory headquartered in North Logan, UT, and has offices in Albuquerque, NM; Colorado Springs, CO; Dayton, OH; Houston, TX; Huntsville, AL; Los Angeles, CA; Stafford, VA; and Washington, DC.