The Rocket Lab launch of CAPSTONE begins NASA’s return to the moon

The company’s electron rocket carrying the CAPSTONE mission will be launched from New Zealand on 28 June 2022.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab launched a small spacecraft on its way to the moon from the New Zealand facility early on Tuesday, a mission that represents the first for both the company and NASA.

The company’s Electron rocket carried a special version of its Photon satellite platform, which carries a 55-pound spacecraft the size of a microwave oven called CAPSTONE.

“Perfect electron launch!” Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck tweeted Tuesday.

CAPSTONE, an acronym for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment,” is a low-cost mission representing the first launch under NASA’s lunar Artemis program.

With a price tag of just $ 30 million, NASA hopes the mission will confirm that a particular type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Moon’s Gateway space station, which the agency aims to launch later this decade.

Gateway’s success does not depend on this data, NASA’s Christopher Baker, head of the technology program for small spacecraft, explained to CNBC before the launch. But, he added, CAPSTONE allows the agency to ground its trajectory calculations “in actual data” and provide “operational experience in the near-straight Halo trajectory.”

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

The CAPSTONE spacecraft mounted on top of the company’s Moon Photon spacecraft.

Rocket Lab

CAPSTONE also represents the first Rocket Lab mission to enter the “deep space” – and go beyond the company’s typical low – ground goal.

NASA approached a small group of companies to make CAPSTONE happen. In addition to Rocket Labs Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft, Colorado-based Advanced Space developed and will develop CAPSTONE, while two California companies built the small spacecraft and delivered their propulsion system – Terran Orbital and Stellar Exploration, respectively.

“Each major component here actually comes from a company that over the past 10 years has received a small business award from the government to develop the technology used for this mission,” said NASA’s Baker.

“We are very interested in how we can support and leverage American commercial capabilities to advance what is capable – and one of the things we have really pushed for over the years has been how to expand the reach of small spacecraft beyond the low-ground orbit to challenging new destinations, “Baker added.