A small NASA-funded spacecraft launched from New Zealand on Tuesday, and the space agency’s plans to send astronauts to the moon begin within a few years.
The spacecraft, called CAPSTONE, is about the size of a microwave oven. It will study a specific orbit where NASA plans to build a small space station for astronauts to stop at before and after going to the moon’s surface.
At 9:55 p.m. local time (5:55 a.m. ET), a 59-foot-high rocket carrying CAPSTONE blasted off from a launch pad along New Zealand’s east coast. Although the mission collects information for NASA, it is owned and operated by a private company, Advanced Space, based in Westminster, Colo.
For a spacecraft bound for the moon, CAPSTONE is inexpensive, costing just under $30 million including the launch of Rocket Lab, an American and New Zealand company.
The first two stages of the CAPSTONE Electron rocket were placed in an elliptical orbit around the Earth. For this mission, Rocket Lab has essentially added a third stage that will systematically raise the height of the spacecraft over the next six days. At this point, CAPSTONE will be on its way to the Moon, taking a slow but effective path, arriving on November 13.
Why is NASA launching CAPSTONE?
The full name of the mission is Cislunar Autonomous GPS Technology Operations and Navigation Experience.
For Artemis, NASA’s program to return astronauts to the Moon, NASA decided to include a small space station around the Moon. This will make it easier for astronauts to reach more parts of the moon.
This outpost will be located in what is known as the semi-straight linear Halo orbit.
The orbits of the corona are those that are affected by the gravity of two objects – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The two bodies’ impact helps make the orbit very stable, reducing the amount of fuel needed to keep the spacecraft orbiting around the moon.
Gravitational interactions also maintain the orbit at about a 90-degree angle when viewing the line of sight from Earth. (This is the semi-straight part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the Moon, as communications will be cut off.
The orbit that the gate will travel is located about 2,200 miles from the moon’s north pole and orbits 44,000 miles as it passes over the south pole. The trip around the moon takes about a week.
No spacecraft has flown in this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to confirm its mathematical models for operating its Gateway location in a near-straight halo orbit.
WHAT ARE THE COMPANIES RUNNING CAPSTONE?
NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The spacecraft belongs to and will be managed by Advanced Space, a company with 45 employees just outside of Denver. Advanced Space has already purchased the 55-pound, microwave-sized satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.
It is also being launched not by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other large aerospace contractors, but by Rocket Lab, an American and New Zealand company This is the pioneer in delivering small payloads to orbit. The company has its own launch site in the North Island of New Zealand for its electronic missiles.
NASA spent about $20 million on Advanced Space to build and operate the spacecraft as well as just under $10 million for the Rocket Lab platform.
What will happen during the mission?
After reaching the moon, the mission will last six months, with the possibility of extending it for another year or more.
The main task is to explore how best to stay in the desired orbit. By measuring how long it takes for radio signals to travel back and forth to Earth, the spacecraft triangulates its position, and then propels itself if it’s out of course.
This may require some trial and error because no spacecraft has ever flown in this orbit before, and without a Global Positioning System on the Moon, the uncertainty as to where the spacecraft will be at at any given moment is even greater.
CAPSTONE will also test an alternative way to find its location by working with other spacecraft orbiting the Moon. Advanced Space has been developing this technology for more than seven years, and now it will test the concept with CAPSTONE to send signals back and forth with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
What other upcoming moon missions?
The largest lunar launch expected this year is Artemis 1, the first major test flight for NASA systems to return astronauts to the lunar surface. As early as late August, NASA could launch a giant rocket, the Space Launch System, which will carry an astronaut’s capsule, Orion. The capsule will travel around the moon and return to Earth without astronauts.
Also in August, South Korea can launch a spacecraft, the Korean Lunar Pathfinder. The spacecraft will be the country’s first visitor to the Moon and will study aspects of lunar geology using a variety of scientific instruments.
Other missions are not certain this year. Russia has said it plans to return an automated lander to the moon for the first time since 1976. A Japanese company, ispace, aims to transport goods From Japan and a variety of other countries to the surface of the moon as well. Two American companies are Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic as well Similar missionshaving been contracted to NASA to transport lunar cargo in the same way that SpaceX now launches cargo to the International Space Station.
NASA has also awarded SpaceX a major contract to build the next lunar lander for astronauts. Although this lander is years away from readiness, in the coming months, the company could experience an orbital test flight of the Starship, the spacecraft that will be the basis for that lander.
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