Monday opens the launch window to June 22 for RocketLab’s Electron rocket, which will send a small spacecraft on a crucial NASA mission to orbit the Moon.
Called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Navigation and Operations Experiment (CAPSTONE), the tiny, microwave oven-sized cubesat is set to launch no earlier than June 25, 2022 after several delays.
Entering a completely new, never-before-tested elliptical orbital path around the Moon, CAPSTONE will serve as a pioneer for two of NASA’s most important human spaceflight missions: the Lunar Gateway space station and the Artemis human spaceflight program. to the surface of the Moon.
where CAPSTONE Will launch from
RocketLab will launch CAPSTONE on its Electron rocket and Photon spacecraft from its LC-1 B launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. You can follow updates (and maybe further delays) on release times at RocketLab Twitter.
When will CAPSTONE be released?
The launch window opens on June 25, 2022. The target liftoff time will change several minutes before each day of the launch window.
CAPSTONE’s Four Month Journey
After six days in low Earth orbit starting at approximately 102 miles/165 kilometers high and slowly climbing to 37,000 miles/59,500 kilometers, CAPSTONE will be propelled toward the Moon at 24,500 mph/39,500 km/h.
Despite that, it will take CAPSTONE four months to reach its strange orbit, first reaching an altitude of 810,000 miles/1.3 million kilometers from Earth, well beyond the Moon, before being drawn toward it.
What will CAPSTONE do?
CAPSTONE will test the stability of a new orbit around the Moon. Known as a nearly rectilinear halo orbit, it is basically an elongated, oval-shaped elliptical orbit located at a precise point of balance between the gravities of Earth and the Moon. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole at its close pass and within 43,500 miles of the other pole at its peak every seven days.
NASA wants to use that orbit for its Lunar Gateway space station, which it intends to assemble in the coming years to help support its manned Artemis landings on the Moon.
The novel orbit provides an unobstructed view of Earth and good coverage of the lunar South Pole, which is where Artemis III is scheduled to land two astronauts in 2024/2025 and eventually build a lunar base.
“CAPSTONE will be precisely controlled and maintained and will greatly benefit from the near-stable physics of its near-rectilinear halo orbit,” said Elwood Agasid, deputy director of the Small Spacecraft Technology program at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon. Valley, Calif. “The burns will be timed to give the ship an extra boost, as it builds momentum naturally; this requires much less fuel than a more circular orbit would require.”
The cubesat will also demonstrate a new navigation system that would allow spacecraft to determine their location relative to the Moon without relying on communications with ground stations on Earth.
“This orbit has the additional benefit of allowing Gateway to have optimal communications with future Artemis missions operating on the lunar surface, as well as back to Earth,” Agasid said. “This could unlock new opportunities for future lunar science and exploration efforts.”
I wish you clear skies and wide eyes.