NASA’s CAPSTONE Mission Launches to the Moon


A small NASA-financed spacecraft launched from New Zealand on Tuesday, kicking off the space agency’s plans to send astronauts back to the moon in a few years.

The spacecraft, called CAPSTONE, is about the size of a microwave oven. It will study a specific orbit where NASA plans to build a small space station for astronauts to stop at before and after going to the moon’s surface.

At 9:55 p.m. local time (5:55 a.m. Eastern time), a 59-foot-tall rocket carrying CAPSTONE lifted off from a launchpad along the eastern coast of New Zealand. Although the mission is gathering information for NASA, it is owned and operated by a private company, Advanced Space, based in Westminster, Colo.

For a spacecraft headed to the moon, CAPSTONE is inexpensive, costing just under $30 million including the launch by Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company.

The first two stages of Electron rocket placed CAPSTONE into an elliptical orbit around Earth. For this mission, Rocket Lab essentially added a third stage that will methodically raise the altitude of the spacecraft over the next six days. At that point, CAPSTONE will head on its way to the moon, taking a slow but efficient path, arriving on Nov. 13.

The full name of the mission is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment.

For Artemis, NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the moon, NASA decided to include a small space station around the moon. That would make it easier for astronauts to reach more parts of the moon.

This outpost is to be placed in what is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are those influenced by the gravity of two bodies — in this case, the Earth and the moon. The influence of the two bodies helps make the orbit highly stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to keep a spacecraft circling the moon.

The gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at about a 90-degree angle to the line-of-sight view from Earth. (This is the near-rectilinear part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications would be cut off.

The orbit that Gateway will travel comes within about 2,200 miles of the moon’s North Pole and loops out as far as 44,000 miles away as it goes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about one week.

No spacecraft has ever traveled in this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to confirm its mathematical models for operating its Gateway outpost in a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The spacecraft belongs to and will be managed by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company just outside of Denver. Advanced Space actually bought the 55-pound, microwave oven-size satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.

It is also being launched not by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other big aerospace contractors, but by Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company that is a leader in delivering small payloads to orbit. The company has its own launch site on New Zealand’s North Island for its Electron rockets.

NASA spent about $20…



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