Rocket Lab CAPSTONE launch kicks off NASA’s return to the Moon

The Electron rocket with the CAPSTONE mission launched from New Zealand on June 28, 2022.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab launched a small spacecraft bound for the Moon from its New Zealand facility early Tuesday morning, a first for both the company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The company’s Electron rocket carried a special version of its Photon satellite platform, which carries a microwave-sized 55-pound CAPSTONE spacecraft.

“Electron’s Perfect Launch!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote on Tuesday.

CAPSTONE, short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”, is a low-cost mission that represents the first launch of NASA’s Artemis lunar program.

With a price tag of just under $30 million, NASA is hoping the mission will confirm that a certain type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Gateway lunar space station, which the agency intends to launch later this decade.

Gateway’s success does not depend on these data, NASA’s Christopher Baker, head of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, told CNBC ahead of the launch. But, he added, CAPSTONE allows the agency to base its orbital calculations “on actual data” and provide “operational experience in a nearly rectilinear halo orbit.”

Photon is currently in orbit around the Earth and will fire its engine several times in the coming days before sending the CAPSTONE spacecraft on a trajectory that will take about four months to reach the Moon. Once there, CAPSTONE will remain in orbit around the Moon for at least six months to collect data.

The CAPSTONE spacecraft is installed on the company’s Photon lunar spacecraft.

Rocket Lab

CAPSTONE also represents Rocket Lab’s first “deep space” mission — beyond the company’s typical target of low Earth orbit.

NASA approached a small group of companies to implement CAPSTONE. In addition to Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft, Colorado-based Advanced Space has developed and will operate CAPSTONE, while two California companies have built a small spacecraft and provided its propulsion system, Terran Orbital and Stellar Exploration, respectively.

“Every major component here actually comes from a company that has received a small business award from the government over the past 10 years for developing the technology that is being used for this mission,” said NASA’s Baker.

“We are very interested in how we can support and leverage the US commercial opportunities to advance what is capable, and one of the things that we have really been looking forward to over the years has been how we extend the reach of small spacecraft beyond outside the low earth. orbit to challenging new destinations,” Baker added.

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