A small NASA-funded spacecraft was launched from New Zealand on Tuesday, sending the space agency plans to send it back to the moon in a few years.
The spacecraft, called the Capstone, is about the size of a microwave oven. It will study a special orbit where NASA plans to build a small space station for astronauts before and after going to the surface of the moon.
At 9:45 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. Eastern time), a 6-foot-high rocket capstone was fired from a launch pad off the east coast of New Zealand. Although the mission collects information for NASA, it is owned and operated by a private company, Advanced Space, based in Westminster, Cologne.
For a spacecraft to the moon, CAPSTONE is the cheapest, costing just under 30 30 million, including a rocket lab, launched by a US-New Zealand company.
In the first two phases of the electron rocket, Capstone was placed in an elliptical orbit around the Earth. For this mission, the Rocket Laboratory essentially added a third phase that would methodically increase the height of the spacecraft over the next six days. At this point, Capstone will make its way to the moon, choosing a slow but effective path, arriving on November 13th.
Why is NASA distributing Capstone?
The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment.
For Artemis, NASA’s program to send storms back to the moon, NASA decided to add a small space station around the moon. This will make it easier for astronauts to reach most parts of the moon.
This position should be located in what is known as a near rectangular halo orbit.
Halo orbits are those that are affected by the gravity of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The penetration of the two bodies helps to make the orbit more stable, reducing the amount of propellant needed to keep the spacecraft around the moon.
The interaction of gravity also keeps the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees from the ground to the point of view. (This is the nearly rectangular part of the name.) Thus, a satellite in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications are cut off.
The orbit that Gateway will travel in comes within about 2,200 miles of the Moon’s North Pole and 44,000 miles along the South Pole. The journey around the moon will take about a week.
So far no spacecraft have entered this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to validate the mathematical model for its gateway position to operate in a near rectangular halo orbit.
Which companies operate CAPSTONE?
NASA has neither designed nor built the CAPSTONE nor will it implement it. The spacecraft is operated and operated by a 45-employee company, Advanced Space, outside Denver. Advanced Space actually bought a 55-pound, microwave-sized satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.
It is also not being launched by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other major space contractors, but by Rocket Labs, a US-New Zealand company that is a leader in delivering small payments to orbit. The company has its own launch site on the North Island of New Zealand for its electric rockets.
NASA has spent about 20 20 million on advanced space to build and operate a satellite, as well as just 10 10 million for a rocket laboratory launcher.
What will happen during the mission?
After reaching the moon, the mission will last six months, possibly extending for another year or more.
The main task is to find out how best to stay in the desired orbit. By measuring how long it takes for radio signals to travel back and forth around the Earth, the spacecraft triangles its position, then rotates itself if the path is long.
This could be a bit of a trial and error because no spacecraft has ever traveled to this orbit before, and without the existence of a global positioning system on the moon, there is a lot of uncertainty about the satellite’s position at any given moment. .
Capstone will also test an alternative method of locating itself by working with other spacecraft around the moon. Advanced Space has been creating this technology for more than seven years, and now the concept will send signals back and forth with CAPSTONE and the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
What other lunar missions are coming?
The biggest launch expected to the moon this year is Artemis 1, the first major test by NASA systems to return storms to the surface of the moon. As late as August, NASA could launch a large rocket, the Space Launch System, which carries the astronaut capsule, Orion. The capsule will travel around the moon and back to Earth without any astronauts.
Also in August, South Korea could launch a spacecraft, the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter. The spacecraft will be the country’s first lunar observer and will study aspects of lunar geology using various scientific instruments.
Other missions are expected to happen less this year. Russia has said it plans to send a robotic lander to the moon for the first time in seven years. A Japanese company called Space plans to deliver cargo to the surface of the moon from Japan and a number of other countries. Two American companies, Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic, also have similar missions, similarly contracted by NASA to transport satellite cargo that SpaceX now carries to the International Space Station.
NASA has also awarded SpaceX a major contract to build the next lunar lander for astronauts. While the lander is years away from being ready, in the coming months, the company will be able to conduct test flights in the orbit of Starship, the spacecraft that will be the basis of this lander.