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CAPSTONE’s Rocket Lab launch kicks off NASA’s return to the moon

CAPSTONE's Rocket Lab launch kicks off NASA's return to the moon
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The company’s Electron rocket carrying the CAPSTONE mission lifts off from New Zealand on June 28, 2022.

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rocket lab launched a small spacecraft bound for the moon from its New Zealand facility early Tuesday, a first-ever mission for both the company and NASA.

The company’s Electron rocket carried a special version of its photon satellite platformcarrying a 55-pound microwave oven-sized spacecraft called CAPSTONE.

“Perfect Electron Launch!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck he tweeted on Tuesday.

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

Priced just under $30 million, NASA hopes the mission will verify that a specific type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Gateway lunar space station the agency aims to launch later this decade.

The success of Gateway does not depend on this data, Christopher Baker, executive of NASA’s small spacecraft technology program, explained to CNBC before the launch. But he added that CAPSTONE allows the agency to base its orbital calculations “on real data” and provide “operational experience in Halo’s near-rectilinear orbit.”

Currently in orbit around Earth, Photon will fire its engine several times in the coming days before sending the CAPSTONE spacecraft on a trajectory that will take about four months to reach the moon. Once there, CAPSTONE will remain in orbit around the moon for at least six months to collect data.

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

rocket lab

CAPSTONE also represents Rocket Lab’s first mission to enter deep space or venture beyond the company’s typical goal of low Earth orbit.

NASA turned to a small cohort of companies to make CAPSTONE a reality. In addition to Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft, Colorado-based Advanced Space developed and will operate CAPSTONE, while two California companies built the small spacecraft and provided its propulsion system: terrestrial orbit and Stellar Exploration, respectively.

“All of the major components here actually come from a company that over the last 10 years received a small business award from the government for developing the technology that is used for this mission,” Baker said.

“We’re very interested in how we can support and leverage US trade capabilities to advance what it’s capable of, and one of the things we’ve really been pushing for over the years has been how we extend the range of small spacecraft beyond low Earth”. orbit to challenging new destinations,” added Baker.

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