Bradley Cheetham is co-founder and CEO of Colorado-based company Advanced Space. He contributed this article to Space.com’s Expert Voices: Editorials and Perspectives.
On June 28, 2022, CAPSTONE launched into space on a dedicated rocket as the first mission of the Artemis program, ushering in a new generation of lunar exploration, development and colonization. With NASA’s leadership and global involvement, we are entering a period that will define the future of space exploration: the Artemis generation.
As architects of CAPSTONE, our team learned first-hand about the challenges of lunar missions. From communication and propulsion anomalies to suspected radiological disturbances, trips to the moon and exploiting it is not an easy task. During these challenges, however, the best in the industry came together and we overcame – such alignment is key to successful long-term lunar development.
Related: NASA’s Artemis program: Everything you need to know
Navigating the next era of exploration
The sustainability of future Moon mission operations will be determined in the years to come. CAPSTONE was quickly followed to the moon by Artemis 1the Korean lunar orbiter Pathfinder (KPLO), And iSpace’s lunar lander. In the months and years to come, missions supporting NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program will launch along with other international missions and the Oracle mission for the Air Force Research Lab. All of these missions, and many more, point to an urgent need for the continued development of scalable infrastructure to meet the changing needs of a diverse set of lunar missions.
To paraphrase Aristotle, we are best when we work together. CAPSTONE – the result of the work of Advanced Space, NASA, rocket lab, Terran Orbital, Stellar Exploration and more – was a collaborative effort. When CAPSTONE encountered an anomaly and spinning rapidly, hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, it was the phenomenal support of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) team and resources that allowed us to get it back on track. It is no exaggeration to say that without this support, the mission would not have been able to go to the Moon.
It’s emblematic of how our industry comes together to overcome adversity. As the largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system in the world, the DSN is a national asset and it needs the support of additional infrastructure to meet the rapidly growing demand from mission planners heading to the moon.
As government and commercial missions continue to mature and increase in number and scope, the infrastructure needed to support operations on the Moon must include the entire value chain. We need rockets, spacecraft, landers, ground tracking sites, and people with the knowledge, experience, and confidence to execute these challenging missions. The need for launch vehicles and spacecraft/landers is a persistent – and practical – topic, but success depends entirely on the systems and people needed to communicate, navigate, plan and operate these missions.
Evolutionary communication from the moon
Communication is a fundamental requirement for successful space exploration. As the CAPSTONE spacecraft traveled more than 1,531,949 kilometers (951,900 miles) from Earth en route to the moon, using highly efficient ballistic lunar transfer, the microwave oven-sized satellite communicated with operators via a 34-meter-wide (112-foot) flat track. For context, 34 meters is more than the size of a baseball field, and these dishes have to track their targets in deep space using big motors while maintaining signal quality.
These Deep Space Network stations are used to support missions throughout the solar system. Their performance is not just about the size of the dish, but is also made possible by high precision electronics and a team of support staff fully dedicated to their roles. As we move forward, lunar growth and development will depend on providing additional capacity to support spacecraft communication and navigation on their way to the moon and their operation.
We are at a critical inflection point where safe and seamless operations in cislunar space require improvements in navigation, awareness, data, and communications. This will require broad global involvement. New systems to augment DSN will not have the same performance requirements but will absolutely help missions to return data and support operations on the moon. These systems will not replace the need for DSN, but if designed and deployed in a way that preserves scalability and the ability to infuse new technologies, they will represent the critical surge capacity that future demand will require. Innovations in space infrastructure, such as communications relay satellites and space navigation technologies, will help adapt current capabilities to meet future demand.
These space systems will face many challenges, some of which CAPSTONE is already working to overcome using the knowledge we have gained from operating on the Moon for more than 150 days to date. The Space Communications Relay has already enabled incredible science in Earth orbit and at March; deploying this capability to the moon is critical to alleviating the emerging bottleneck and opening this critical region of space to scientific exploration and commercial development. We believe that future missions will use increasingly automated and scalable solutions to meet their navigation and communication needs. Navigate a spaceship to the moon, without the benefit of omnipresence GPS signals, is a complex challenge. Achieving this navigation using ground measurements and ground operations tools has now been repeatedly demonstrated by government and commercial entities. The next challenge will be to deploy navigation technologies so that lunar spacecraft can perform some of this function onboard and ideally with reduced ground tracking segment involvement.
As more and more missions head to the moon, the limited resources of global Earth networks must be prioritized, where possible, to bring back mission data. Routine operations require a more scalable solution. At this point, CAPSTONE is working to demonstrate several new navigation approaches that we believe will help enable rapid growth in lunar missions in the years to come. We learn a lot from these on-going flight experiences – as we all know, there are just some things you can’t know until you go!
The Artemis generation takes flight
While it’s easy to focus on the hardware, we must recognize that the learning, experience, intuition and ability to execute these missions resides in the people. These people are part of teams that gain experience and deserve recognition. These people are the hope of the future.
The Artemis Generation is defined by a time period and a group of people who will collectively strive to leave a legacy for future generations in the same way as the Apollo Generation paved the way to the moon 60 years ago. Together, these government and industry teams will overcome challenges, achieve exciting milestones, and bring humanity back to the moon, this time to stay.
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