Launch of NASA’s CAPSTONE mission to the Moon

A small NASA-funded spacecraft launched from New Zealand on Tuesday, kicking off the space agency’s plans to send astronauts back to the moon in a few years.

The spacecraft, called CAPSTONE, is about the size of a microwave oven. It will study a specific orbit where NASA plans to build a small space station for astronauts to stop before and after going to the moon’s surface.

At 9:55 p.m. local time (5:55 a.m. EST), a 59-foot-tall rocket carrying CAPSTONE lifted off from a launch pad along the east coast of New Zealand. Although the mission collects information for NASA, it is owned and operated by a private company, Advanced Space, based in Westminster, Colorado.

For a spacecraft headed to the moon, CAPSTONE is inexpensive, costing just under $30 million, including the launch by Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand company.

The first two stages of the Electron rocket placed CAPSTONE in an elliptical orbit around the Earth. For this mission, Rocket Lab has essentially added a third stage that will methodically increase the spacecraft’s altitude over the next six days. At this point, CAPSTONE will be heading for the moon, taking a slow but efficient path, arriving on November 13.

The full name of the mission is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operation and Navigation Experiment.

For Artemis, NASA’s program to return astronauts to the Moon, NASA decided to include a small space station around the Moon. This would make it easier for astronauts to reach more parts of the moon.

This outpost should be placed in what is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are those influenced by the gravity of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The influence of the two bodies helps make the orbit very stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to spin a spacecraft around the moon.

Gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees to line of sight from Earth. (It’s the nearly straight part of the name.) So a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications would be cut off.

The orbit that Gateway will travel is about 2,200 miles from the moon’s North Pole and loops up to 44,000 miles as it passes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about a week.

No spacecraft has ever traveled to this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to confirm its mathematical models for operating its Gateway outpost in a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

NASA neither designed nor built CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The spacecraft is owned and will be operated by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company just outside of Denver. Advanced Space actually purchased the 55-pound microwave-sized satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.

It’s also being launched not by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other big aerospace contractors, but by Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand company that’s a leader in delivering small payloads to orbit. The company has its own launch site on New Zealand’s North Island for its Electron rockets.

NASA spent about $20 million for Advanced Space to build and operate the spacecraft as well as just under $10 million for Rocket Lab’s launch vehicle.

After arriving on the Moon, the mission will last six months, with the possibility of being extended for a year or more.

Its main task is to explore the best way to stay in the desired orbit. By measuring the time it takes for radio signals to travel back and forth to Earth, the spacecraft triangulates its position, then nudges itself if it veers off course.

It might take some trial and error because no spacecraft has traveled this orbit before, and without a global positioning system on the moon there is greater uncertainty about the spacecraft’s location at any time.

CAPSTONE will also test an alternative method of finding its position by working with other spacecraft circling the moon. Advanced Space has been developing this technology for over seven years and will now test the concept with CAPSTONE sending signals back and forth with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The biggest launch to the Moon scheduled for this year is Artemis 1, NASA’s first major systems test flight for returning astronauts to the lunar surface. From the end of August, NASA could launch a giant rocket, the Space Launch System, which would carry an astronaut capsule, Orion. The capsule will circle the Moon and return to Earth without an astronaut on board.

Also in August, South Korea could launch a spacecraft, the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter. The spacecraft would be the country’s first visitor to the moon and study facets of lunar geology using a variety of scientific instruments.

Other missions expected this year are less certain to occur. Russia has announced plans to return a robotic lander to the Moon for the first time since 1976. A Japanese company, ispace, also aims to transport goods from Japan and various other countries to the lunar surface. Two US companies, Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, also have similar missions, having been contracted by NASA to ferry lunar cargo in the same way SpaceX is now launching cargo to the International Space Station.

NASA has also awarded SpaceX a major contract to build the next lunar lander for astronauts. Although this lander is years away, in the coming months the company could attempt an orbital test flight of Starship, the spacecraft that will serve as the base for this lander.

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