A satellite the size of a microwave oven broke loose from its orbit around the Earth on Monday and is on its way to the moon, the last step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the moon’s surface again.
It has already been an unusual journey for the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the moon, as it cruises with minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told the Associated Press that it was difficult to put his enthusiasm into words.
“It’s probably going to take a while to sink in. It’s been a project that has taken us two, two and a half years and is just incredibly, incredibly difficult to carry out,” he said. “So to see everything come together tonight and see that spacecraft on its way to the moon, it’s just epic.”
Beck said the relatively low cost of the mission – NASA estimates it at $ 32.7 million – marked the beginning of a new era of space exploration.
“For tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and a spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an insane ability that has never existed before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back important information for several months as the first to take a new orbit around the moon called an almost rectilinear halo orbit: an extended egg shape with one end of the orbit passing near the moon and the other far from it.
Finally, NASA plans to put a space station called the Gateway into orbit, from where astronauts can get down to the moon’s surface as part of the Artemis program.
Beck said the advantage of the new orbit is that it minimizes fuel consumption and allows the satellite – or a space station – to stay in constant contact with the earth.
The electron rocket, which was launched on June 28 from New Zealand, carried a second spacecraft called the Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was carried for six days in Photon, with the spacecraft’s engines fired at regular intervals to raise the orbit farther and farther from Earth.
A final engine failure on Monday allowed Photon to break from the earth’s gravitational force and send the satellite on its way. The plan now is for the 25-kilo (55-pound) satellite to go far above the moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on 13 November. The satellite will use tiny amounts of fuel to make some planned corrections of the orbit along the orbit. road.
Beck said they would decide in the coming days what to do with Photon, which had completed its tasks and still had some fuel left in the tank.
“There are a number of really cool missions we can actually do with it,” Beck said.
For the mission, NASA teamed up with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.