With the help of the private company Rocket Lab, NASA on Tuesday sent a small, cube-shaped satellite on a journey to explore a never-before-flying orbit around the moon, laying the groundwork for future lunar operations.
The CAPSTONE mission is an important step in advancing NASA’s Artemis program, which will culminate in the landing of the first woman and first person of color on the moon by NASA. The mission is also another successful milestone for NASA in its efforts to commercial space economy†
The goal of CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) is to test different technologies in a lunar orbit called a “near rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO). In the near future, NASA plans to use this particular orbit as a path for gate — a space station that will support deep space exploration.
The microwave-sized satellite (a CubeSat) tasked with the CAPSTONE mission launched Tuesday at 5:55 a.m. ET aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. The satellite is currently attached to Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon, a spacecraft that will send CAPSTONE into deep space.
Shortly after launch, Lunar Photon separated from the second stage of the Electron rocket. Over the next six days, Photon’s engine will periodically fire to accelerate it past low Earth orbit. After that, Photon will position the satellite on a ballistic moon transfer trajectory to the moon. CAPSTONE will then use its own propulsion and the sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way.
The journey to the lunar orbit would take about four months. In about a week, anyone who wants to track the CAPSTONE satellite will be able to use NASA’s Eyes on the solar system interactive real-time 3D data visualization. NASA will post updates on when CAPSTONE can be seen in the simulated view of the solar system on NASA’s Ames Research Center Homepage like Twitter and facebook†
Once in orbit, CAPSTONE will fly within 1,000 miles of the moon’s north pole at its near pass and 70,500 miles from the south pole at its farthest. Making a full orbit around the moon takes six and a half days. The satellite will remain there for at least six months.
The trip will include the opportunity to test the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System developed by the company Advanced Space – a spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and communication system. The system could allow future spacecraft to determine their position in space without relying on tracking from Earth.