Nasa has selected US-based Advanced Space to create and operate a CubeSat pathfinder mission in orbit around the Moon.

The $13.7m contract has been awarded through a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract.

The CubeSat will be designed to rotate with the Moon in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, which is the same orbit planned for a small spaceship mission called Gateway.

The Gateway is part of Nasa’s Artemis lunar exploration programme.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft will be the first to operate in that unique lunar orbit.

Nasa Space Technology Mission Directorate associate administrator Jim Reuter said: “This is an exciting opportunity for Nasa to aggressively push forward towards the Moon in partnership with several American small businesses as a vanguard to Artemis and sustained human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.

“This mission is highly ambitious in both cost and schedule, and taking that deliberate risk is part of the objective of this mission, alongside the rapid technological advancement in cislunar navigation and the opportunity to verify orbital trajectory assumptions and retire unknowns for future missions.”

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The 12-unit CubeSat will pass 1,000 miles closer and 43,500 miles farther from the Moon. Nasa and its partners will be provided with insights to understand and support Moon and Mars exploration.

The size of the CubeSat will be equal to that of a small microwave oven and equipped with a communications system.

This system will provide inter-spacecraft information about CAPSTONE and Nasa’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The pathfinder mission is expected to be carried out in December next year.

Advanced Space CEO Bradley Cheetham said: “Not only will it serve as a pathfinder for Artemis, but it will also demonstrate key exploration-enabling commercial capabilities.

“Our team will be pioneering state-of-the-art tools for mission planning and operations to enable growth in the number of future missions to the Moon, Mars, and throughout the solar system.”