SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

USU making history with a radio entering the lunar orbit

Nov 30, 2022, 11:00 AM | Updated: Jan 5, 2023, 2:44 pm
space radio...
Iris entered the moon's orbit just after 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 13, 2022. Photo: Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory

LOGAN, Utah — Utah State University has successfully sent a radio, created by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory into the orbit of earth’s moon. 

The deep space radio is named Iris, after the Greek mythological goddess, daughter of Thaumas and Electra and messenger of the gods. The radio made its way into the orbit via a CubeSat spacecraft. 

Astronomers call this spacecraft a CAPSTONE. CAPSTONE, according to SDL is the first CubeSat to orbit Earth’s moon

According to a press release from the SDL, CAPSTONE entered a lunar orbit after a “final insertion maneuver” at 5:39 p.m. on Nov. 13. 

The Iris radio sends critical information between the satellite and operators on Earth. SDL said the design and manufacturing created in 2016 by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is what makes Iris different.

Specifically, Iris orbits at altitudes greater than 1,500 kilometers above Earth. Additionally, the CAPSTONE Iris Radio is designed to perform in the extreme temperatures and radiation environment of lunar orbit.

According to Tim Neilsen, SDL’s CAPSTONE program manager, Iris Radio is healthy and operating normally in a precise balancing point between the gravities of Earth and the Moon.

Space radio mission

Despite being about the size of a microwave and only weighing about 55 lbs, a lot is riding on Iris.

Namely, the CAPSTONE is a pathfinder mission for the Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost. 

“When the west was settled there needed to be outposts along the way so that travelers could make their way to Utah and beyond. Gateway fits into that category,” said Eric Warren with the USU Space Dynamics Lab. “It is setting up the rescores that will be required so that subsequent missions can make their way more easily to the moon.”

Gateway will provide necesary support for astronomers long-term return to the moon and will be a home for deep space exploration.

Additionally, and similar to the International Space Station, NASA is creating a place for astronauts to live and research called HALO, a habitation and logistics outpost. 

“One day… closer to the moon,” Warren started. “Astronauts will have a place to study the long-term, deeper space effects on human astronauts.”

Overall, CAPSTONE’s mission is to reduce risk for future spacecraft. SLD says this will be achievable by “validating new navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of its unique quasi-stable, 3-body orbit.”  

Dale Spaulding contributed to this reporting

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USU making history with a radio entering the lunar orbit