CAPSTONE Launch For NASA To Test New Orbit Around The Moon

By Michael Horton •  Updated: 06/29/22 •  2 min read

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has launched NASA’s CAPSTONE mission. CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) carries a CubeSat to test out a novel, elliptical lunar orbit.

If the mission is a success, the minuscule satellite will be the first to take the new trail around the moon and send back important data for a minimum of six months. The new orbit, dubbed a near-rectilinear halo orbit, is quite elongated and allows stability for long-term missions but needs less energy to maintain.

The aim is to establish the optimal orbit for Gateway, an orbiting moon outpost that will act as a way station between Earth and the moon for astronauts, which could be in place after 2024.

“Today’s launch was an important step in humanity’s return to the Moon and a testament to the determination, resolve, and innovation of the hundreds of people behind Capstone. Rocket Lab was founded to open access to space and enable ground-breaking missions like this that push the limits of what’s possible with small satellites. While Capstone’s journey to the Moon has only just begun, we’re proud to have safely delivered Capstone to space,”

said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO.

The CAPSTONE Sweet Spot

The satellite’s orbit will carry the spacecraft to within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole at its closest pass and within 43,500 miles from the other pole every seven days.

“It will have equilibrium. Poise. Balance. This pathfinding CubeSat will practically be able to kick back and rest in a gravitational sweet spot in space — where the pull of gravity from Earth and the Moon interact to allow for a nearly-stable orbit,”

according to NASA’s website on CAPSTONE.

Six days after launching, Photon’s engines are slated to fire one final time, letting it escape Earth’s orbit and head out to the moon. The rocket will then release the satellite, to cruise toward the moon over four months. Trajectory course corrections along the way have been planned.

“The CAPSTONE mission is a valuable precursor not just for Gateway, but also for the Orion spacecraft and the Human Landing System. Gateway and Orion will use the data from CAPSTONE to validate our model, which will be important for operations and planning for the future mission,”

explained Nujoud Merancy at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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