NASA Begins Return to Moon with Low-Cost CAPSTONE Mission Launched by Rocket Lab

NASA Begins Return to Moon with Low-Cost CAPSTONE Mission Launched by Rocket Lab

The company’s Electron rocket carrying the CAPSTONE mission took off 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, a mission that represents a first for both the company and NASA.

The company’s Electron rocket carried a special version of its Photon satellite platform, a 55-pound, microwave oven-sized spacecraft called Capstone.

“Perfect Electron Launch!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Becky tweeted on Tuesday,

Capstone, an acronym for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, is a low-cost mission that represents 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 specific type of Moon orbit is suitable for the Lunar Gateway space station that the agency aims to launch later this decade.

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

Currently in orbit around Earth, the Photon will fire its engines 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 mounted on top of the company’s Lunar Photon spacecraft.

Rocket Lab

CAPSTONE also represents the first Rocket Lab mission going into deep space, or beyond the company’s specific goal of low Earth orbit.

NASA turned to a small group of companies to create CAPSTONE. In addition to Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft, Colorado-based Advanced Space developed and will operate the capstone, while two California-based companies built the smaller spacecraft and provided its propulsion systems – Terran Orbital and Stellar Exploration, respectively. .

“Every key ingredient here is really coming from a company that, within the past 10 years, has received a small business award from the government for developing the technology being used for this mission,” Baker said.

“We’re very interested in how we’re able to support and leverage American commercial capabilities going forward — and one of the things we’ve been really pushing for years is that How do we extend the reach of small spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit to challenging new destinations,” Baker said.