NASA finally launched its ‘CAPSTONE’ spacecraft on Tuesday morning, marking an important early stage in its Artemis space programme.
The craft, which is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds, blasted off from Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand at 10:55 BST (21:55 local time).
Over six months, it will test the stability of a halo-shaped orbit around the moon before this orbit is used by Lunar Gateway, NASA’s planned lunar outpost.
Lunar Gateway, which is due to launch in 2024, will serve as a ‘staging area’ for landing humans on the moon for the first time in 50 years, and potentially as a jumping-off point for missions to Mars.
The craft, which is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds, blasted off from Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand at 10:55 BST (21:55 local time)
Over six months, CAPSTONE will test the stability of a halo-shaped orbit around the moon before this orbit is used by Lunar Gateway, NASA’s planned lunar outpost.
CAPSTONE: Key stats
Size: 13 x 13 x 25 inches
Weight: 55 pounds
Orbit: Near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO)
Launch site: Mahia, New Zealand
Launch date: June 28, 2022
The CAPSTONE spacecraft, which was originally scheduled to launch in October 2021, was sent into space on an ‘Electron’ booster rocket built by US firm Rocket Lab.
‘We have lift-off from Launch Complex 1!’ Rocket Lab tweeted moments after the launch. ‘CAPSTONE’s journey to the Moon is underway.’
Rocket Lab also confirmed that the rocket had reached Max Q – the point when an its atmospheric flight reaches maximum dynamic pressure.
Bradley Smith, director of launch services at NASA, described the launch as ‘fabulous’.
‘This has been, for me, eight years in the making. Here we are, not even a decade later and this incredible team has sent CAPSTONE on a ballistic trajectory to lunar orbit.’
CAPSTONE is an abbreviation for ‘Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment’.
It is unique in that it will travel on an elongated halo-shaped orbit, which will bring it as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.
It will use its propulsion system to travel for approximately three to four months before entering into orbit around the moon. One orbit will occur every seven days.
CAPSTONE is unique in that it will travel on an elongated halo-shaped orbit, which will bring it as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface
US company Rocket Lab has sent the CAPSTONE satellite into space on its Electron rocket (pictured in May)
CAPSTONE blasted off on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand
The spacecraft is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds. It’s depicted here in an artist’s impression in its orbit around the moon
CAPSTONE over the lunar North Pole: After arriving at the moon in around four months, the craft will begin a six-month-long mission to validate a special type of orbit
While it usually takes a few days for a spacecraft to reach the moon, CAPSTONE will take much longer as it’s travelling at a slower speed and has to take a longer route to gear itself for an unusual oval shape.
The strange-shaped orbit, officially called a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), has never before been tried in space.
WHAT IS THE ARTEMIS PROGRAMME?
Artemis is an ongoing space mission run by NASA with the goal of landing the first female astronaut and first astronaut of colour on the Moon’s South Pole.
It is the US space agency’s first crewed Moon mission since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Artemis I, launching in August 2022, will pave the way for crewed flights by sending manikins to space.
Artemis II will launch in May 2024 and fly by the moon without landing on it.
Artemis III, which will launch ‘no earlier than 2025’, will be the first to land humans on the moon in more than 50 years.
The orbit’s route is located at a precise balance point in the gravities of the Earth and moon, meaning less energy is expended.
‘The stability of this orbit will allow CAPSTONE to behave almost like it’s held in place by the gravity of Earth and the moon,’ Elwood Agasid at NASA’s Ames Research Center told The Next Web.
‘It requires little energy for station-keeping or to manoeuvre into other cislunar orbits [those between the earth and the moon].’
CAPSTONE will orbit this area around the moon for at least six months to understand ‘the characteristics of the orbit’, according to NASA, before the space agency deliberately crashes it on the lunar surface.
The space agency said: ‘It will validate the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, reducing logistical uncertainties.
‘It will also demonstrate the reliability of innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solutions as well as communication capabilities with Earth.’
The first parts for the Lunar Gateway are not set to launch until November 2024 at the very earliest, giving NASA plenty of time to assess the results from CAPSTONE.
Described as a ‘vital component’ of NASA’s Artemis programme, the Lunar Gateway will be a small space station orbiting the moon, acting as a ‘multi-purpose outpost’.
The official word is that NASA’s Artemis programme will land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2025, although this could be pushed back again, NASA Investigator General Paul Martin recently suggested.
Pictured is an artist’s impression of CAPSTONE in orbit around the moon with the Earth in the background
Lunar Gateway, pictured here above the moon in an artist’s impression, is described as a ‘vital component’ of NASA’s Artemis programme
NASA’s original date for landing humans on the moon again was 2024, but last year it delayed the date, largely blamed on litigation from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin.
Also this year, NASA will be sending manikins to space as part of the Artemis I mission in August 2022.
Artemis I will pave the way for crewed flights – Artemis II, which will launch in May 2024 and fly by the moon without landing on it, and Artemis III, which will actually touch down on the lunar surface.
Artemis III, which will launch ‘no earlier than 2025’, will be the first to land humans on the moon in more than 50 years, since Apollo 17 in December 1972.
NASA’S LUNAR GATEWAY: A VITAL PART OF ARTEMIS PROGRAMME
NASA is working on a project to build the first lunar space station, codenamed the Lunar Gateway, as part of a long-term project to send humans to Mars.
The crew-tended spaceport will orbit the moon and serve as a ‘gateway to deep space and the lunar surface,’ NASA has said.
The first modules of the station could be completed as soon as 2024.
An international base for lunar exploration for humans and robots and a stopover for spacecraft is a leading contender to succeed the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS), the world’s largest space project to date.
Pictured: a diagram of the proposed Lunar Gateway space station
NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions aim to send the first crewed mission to the moon since 1972 ‘no earlier than 2025’.
This was originally by 2024, but costs and litigation from Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin forced NASA to put this back a year.
Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.
The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.