Monday sees the launch window open through June 22 for RocketLab’s Electron rocket, which will send a small spacecraft on a crucial NASA mission to orbit the Moon.
Called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the tiny cubesat—about the size of a microwave oven—will launch no earlier than June 25, 2022 after a several delays.
By entering into an all-new, never tried before elliptical orbital path around the Moon CAPSTONE will serve as a pathfinder for two of NASA’s most important human spaceflight missions—the Lunar Gateway space station and the Artemis program of crewed slights to the Moon’s surface.
Where CAPSTONE will launch from
RocketLab will launch CAPSTONE on its Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft from its LC-1 B launch site on the Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. You can follow updates (and maybe more delays) on launch times on RocketLab’s Twitter feed.
When CAPSTONE will launch
The launch window opens June 25, 2022. The target lift-off time will shift several minutes earlier on each day of the launch window.
CAPSTONE’s four-month journey
After six days in a low-Earth orbit starting about 102 miles/165 kilometers up and slowly raising to 37,000 miles/59,500 kilometers, CAPSTONE will be propelled towards the Moon at 24,500 mph/39,500 km/h.
Despite that it will take CAPSTONE four months to reach its orbit, first reaching an strange altitude of 810,000 miles/1.3 million kilometers from Earth—far beyond the Moon, before being pulled back towards it.
What CAPSTONE will do
CAPSTONE will test the stability of a new orbit around the Moon. Known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, it’s basically an elongated elliptical oval-shaped orbit located at a precise balance point between the gravities of Earth and the Moon. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days.
NASA wants to use that orbit for its Lunar Gateway space station, which it intends to assemble over the next few years to help support its Artemis crewed landings on the Moon.
The novel orbit gives an unobstructed view of Earth and good coverage of the lunar South Pole, which is where Artemis III is scheduled to land two astronauts in 2024/2025 and, eventually, construct a lunar base.
“CAPSTONE will be precisely controlled and maintained and will tremendously benefit from the nearly-stable physics of its near rectilinear halo orbit,” said Elwood Agasid, deputy program manager of Small Spacecraft Technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “The burns will be timed to give the spacecraft an extra boost as it naturally builds momentum—this requires a lot less fuel than a more circular orbit would require.”
The cubesat will also demonstrate a new navigation system that would allow spacecraft to determine their location relative to the Moon without relying on communications with ground stations on Earth.
“This orbit has an added bonus of allowing Gateway to have optimal communications with future Artemis missions operating on the lunar surface as well as back to Earth,” said Agassid. “This could unlock new opportunities for future lunar science and exploration efforts.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.