The microwave-oven-sized satellite successfully de-orbited the Earth on Monday and is heading for the Moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the Moon’s surface again.
This has already been an unusual journey for a Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula by Rocket Lab on one of its small Electron rockets. The satellite will take another four months to reach the moon, as it travels using the minimum amount of energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that his excitement is hard to put into words.
“It will probably take some time to realize this. It was a project that took us two, two and a half years, and it is just incredibly, incredibly difficult to implement,” he said. “So seeing all of this coming together tonight and seeing the spacecraft heading for the moon is just epic.”
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA estimated it at $32.7 million — heralded a new era of space exploration.
“For a few tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “This is an insane opportunity that has never existed before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will be sending out vital information for months, as the first to enter a new orbit around the Moon called a near-rectilinear halo orbit: an elongated egg shape with one end of the orbit. passing close to the moon, and the other far from it.
Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called the Gateway on an orbital path from which astronauts will be able to descend to the surface of the moon as part of their Artemis program.
Beck said the advantage of the new orbit is that it minimizes fuel consumption and allows a satellite or space station to remain in constant contact with Earth.
An Electron rocket launched on June 28 from New Zealand carried a second spacecraft called the Photon, which separated nine minutes later. The satellite stayed in Photon for six days, with the spacecraft’s engines firing intermittently to raise its orbit further and further away from Earth.
The latest engine explosion on Monday allowed Photon to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull and send the satellite on its way. The 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite is currently scheduled to fly far from the Moon before returning to a new lunar orbit on November 13. path.
Beck said that in the coming days they would decide what to do with the Photon, which had completed its tasks and still had some fuel left in the tank.
“There are some really cool missions that we can do with it,” Beck said.
For this mission, NASA has teamed up with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.
NASA hopes New Zealand launch will pave the way for moon landings
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