Launch of CAPSTONE by Rocket Lab marks NASA’s return to the Moon

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

rocket lab

Rocket Lab launched a small spacecraft bound for the moon Tuesday morning from its New Zealand facilities, a mission that represents a first for 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 55-pound microwave-sized spacecraft called CAPSTONE.

“Perfect Electron Launch!” Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab tweeted 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 under $30 million, NASA hopes the mission will verify that a specific type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Gateway lunar space station that the agency aims to launch later this decade.

Gateway’s success doesn’t depend on that data, NASA’s Christopher Baker, director of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, told CNBC ahead of launch. But, he added, CAPSTONE allows the agency to base its orbital calculations “on real data” and give “operational experience in near-rectilinear Halo orbit.”

Currently orbiting Earth, Photon will then fire its engine several times over the next few days, before sending the CAPSTONE spacecraft on a trajectory that will take about four months to reach the moon. Once there, CAPSTONE will orbit the Moon for at least six months to collect data.

The CAPSTONE spacecraft mounted on the company’s Photon lunar spacecraft.

rocket lab

CAPSTONE also represents the first Rocket Lab mission to go into “deep space” – venturing beyond the company’s typical target in low Earth orbit.

NASA turned to a small cohort of companies to make CAPSTONE. In addition to Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft, Colorado-based Advanced Space has developed and will operate CAPSTONE, while two California companies have built the 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 for the past 10 years for developing the technology used for this mission,” NASA’s Baker said.

“We’re very interested in how we can support and leverage American commercial capabilities to advance what’s capable – and one of the things we’ve really pushed over the years has been how we extend the reach small spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit to exciting new destinations,” Baker added.

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