May 23, 2024

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

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

The company’s Electron rocket carrying the CAPSTONE mission will lift off from New Zealand on June 28, 2022.

rocket lab

rocket lab A small spacecraft bound for the moon launched from its New Zealand facility early Tuesday, a mission marking a first for both the company and NASA.

Download the company’s Electron missile a special copy of it Photon space platformwhich carries a 55-pound spacecraft, the size of a microwave oven called CAPSTONE.

“Perfect electron firing!” Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab Tweet Tuesday.

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

With a price tag of just $30 million, NASA hopes the mission will verify that a certain type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Lunar Gateway space station that the agency aims to launch later this decade.

NASA’s Christopher Baker, executive director of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, explained to CNBC before launch that Gateway’s success does not depend on this data. But he added that CAPSTONE allows the agency to base its orbital calculations “in actual data” and give “operational experience in a near-straight Halo orbit.”

Currently in Earth orbit, the Photon will fire its engine several times over the coming days before sending the CAPSTONE spacecraft on a path 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.

CAPSTONE also marks Rocket Lab’s first mission to go into deep space, or venture beyond the company’s typical goal of low Earth orbit.

NASA turned to a small group of companies to realize CAPSTONE. In addition to the Electron rocket and the Photon spacecraft from Rocket Lab, Colorado-based Advanced Space developed and will power CAPSTONE, while two Californian companies built the small spacecraft and provided its propulsion system – Terran Orbital and Stellar Exploration, respectively.

“Every key component here actually comes from a company that over the past 10 years has received a small business award from the government for developing the technology that is being used for this task,” Becker said.

“We’re very interested in how we can support and leverage American commercial capabilities to develop what’s capable — and one of the things we’ve been really pushing over the years is how to extend the reach of small spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbiting challenging new destinations,” Baker added.