NASA spacecraft begins journey to moon after New Zealand launch
Rocket Lab's Electron rocket launches CAPSTONE on the path to lunar orbit
Rocket Lab launched NASA's microwave-size spacecraft from New Zealand on Tuesday, beginning its multi-month journey to the moon, which will pave a path for future human missions.
Electron launched at 5:55 a.m. Eastern time from Rocket Lab's launch complex in Mahia, marking the company's 27th overall mission. Inside the rocket's nosecone was a 55-pound spacecraft operated by Advanced Space for NASA.
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NASA Ames Research Center engineering manager Elwood Agasid said the weather on the Mahia Peninsula was ideal for liftoff.
"It was a perfect day for a launch, weather-wise," Agasid said, adding launch managers keep a close eye on strong winds.
"After the strong back pulls back, the rocket is on its own," he said.
In high winds, the rocket launch trajectory could be thrown off if the rocket is swaying in the winds, Agasid explained. That was not a problem on Tuesday for the Electron rocket.
According to the New Zealand MetService, winds were around 4 mph Tuesday morning in Mahia.
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NASA's CAPSTONE spacecraft stands for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. The spacecraft will test navigating around the moon in a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit. This is the orbit NASA plans to use for the Lunar Gateway, a small orbiting station around the moon, which is a crucial part of NASA's Artemis moon program designed to return humans to the moon by 2025.
After liftoff, CAPSTONE is in a stable orbit attached to Rocket Lab's Photon Lunar spacecraft, which will provide transportation to set CAPSTONE on the correct course to the moon. The spacecraft will travel more than three times the distance between the Earth and the moon before gravity will pull CAPSTONE back, setting it up for its specialized orbit around the moon.
"Today’s launch was an important step in humanity’s return to the Moon and a testament to the determination, resolve, and innovation of the hundreds of people behind CAPSTONE," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.
The journey will take about three to four months for CAPSTONE, and the spacecraft should arrive in lunar orbit on Nov. 13.
"While CAPSTONE’s journey to the Moon has only just begun, we’re proud to have safely delivered CAPSTONE to space," Beck said.
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The $19.98 million mission is considered a NASA technology demonstration mission that will prove Gateway can maintain the same orbit.
The Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit will take CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole and then 43,000 miles from the opposite pole at its furthest once a week. According to NASA, this halo-like orbit requires less propulsion for spacecraft flying to and from the moon versus circular orbits.
"Its goals really are to examine a low-energy approach to the moon. It’s a different approach than what’s typically done where it’s a direct injection of spacecraft into lunar orbit," Agasid said.
NASA wants to find a low-fuel launch option to allow more mass and equipment to be delivered to the moon for future Artemis missions.
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