Rocket Lab launched NASA tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft on a month-long trip to Moon.
It was launched yesterday, June 28, atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster, from the company Launch Complex 1 on Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand’s at 5:55 a.m. EDT (0955 a.m. GMT).
The mission will test the stability of the orbit that NASA plans to use for their lunar Gateway outpost. If all goes according to plan, it will go down in history as a major milestone in NASA’s plans to establish and maintain a permanent presence on moon.
Rocket Lab and NASA launch historic lunar cubesat mission
CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Operations and Navigation Experiment”) will take some time to reach the moon. Unlike the Apollo missions that took off atop NASA’s most powerful Saturn V rocket, the tiny CAPSTONE cubesat launched on the 59-foot (18-meter) high Rocket Lab Electron were designed primarily for satellite launch into orbit.
That means CAPSTONE, currently hitching a ride aboard the Photon, Rocket Lab’s space-craft carrier, won’t reach its scheduled lunar orbit until November 13.
The Photon spacecraft carrying CAPSTONE was installed into the two-stage Electron upper-stage and separated from the upper stage into low Earth orbit about 9 minutes after launch.
“Capstone was the heaviest and most challenging mission we’ve lifted to date, but Electron completed the lift flawlessly even when performance to spare,” said Rocket Lab CEO. , Peter Beck, wrote on Twitter shortly after launch, adding that Photon was in low Earth orbit. at that time.
The photon will now gradually boost its orbit with a series of engine burns over the next five days. On the 6th day after launch, it will perform a final burn to increase speed to 24,500 mph (39,500 km/h). This will allow him to escape Earth’s orbit and begin his journey to the moon. About 20 minutes after this last burn, the Photon will deploy the CAPSTONE cubesat on its lunar trajectory.
Occasionally, the cube will fire up its own thrusters over the next few months as it makes its slow, energy-efficient journey to the moon. The slow journey is part of the reason that allows NASA to maintain the mission with a relatively low – for space operations – of $30 million budget.
Paving the way for NASA lunar gateway outpost
Once it has reached its intended destination, CAPSTONE willinsert itself into a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) of the moon. Its journey will eventually take it as-far-as 810,000 miles (1.3 million KM) from Earth. This orbit has not yet been tested. NASA officials believe it is very stable, meaning it would be ideal for NASA’s future lunar outpost, which will form a key component of their plans to eventually reach Mars.
The gravitational effects of the Moon and Earth mean that space stations and spacecraft don’t need to use a lot of fuel to stay in the NRHO. As a criterion of reference, the International Space Station orbiting the Earth must periodically re-boost its orbit – something that has only been done by Russian spacecraft until recently.
NASA’s Lunar Gateway outpost will eventually serve as a stop off point for manned missions to the lunar surface. The US space agency recently announced that it intends to send parts of the orbital station to the moon by the end of 2024. Russia & China work separately on its own lunar outpost after Russia’s space agency Roskosmos opted-out of partner with NASA on its Gateway program.
In any case, before NASA’s Gateway plan can proceed, CAPSTONE will spend 6 months in the NRHO evaluating its stability. Stay tuned for more updates on NASA’s and Rocket Lab tiny cubesat mission with potentially enormous ramifications for future of space exploration.