Monday opens the launch window through June 22 for RocketLab’s Electron rocket, which will send a small spacecraft on a crucial NASA mission to orbit the moon.
Dubbed the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the tiny CubeSat — about the size of a microwave oven — will launch no earlier than June 25, 2022, after several delays.
By entering an all-new, never-before-tested elliptical orbit around the Moon, CAPSTONE will serve as the enabler for two of NASA’s most important human spaceflight missions – the Lunar Gateway space station and the Artemis program of small-scale manned flights to the lunar surface.
Where CAPSTONE will Start from
RocketLab will launch CAPSTONE with its electron rocket and photon spacecraft from its LC-1B launch site on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. You can track updates (and possibly other delays) at launch times RocketLab Twitter feed.
When CAPSTONE is started
The launch window opens on June 25, 2022. The target launch time moves forward by a few minutes each day of the launch window.
CAPSTONE’s four-month journey
After six days in a low Earth orbit beginning at an altitude of approximately 165 kilometers (102 miles) and slowly rising to 59,500 kilometers (37,000 miles), CAPSTONE will be catapulted towards the Moon at 39,500 km/h (24,500 mph).
Even so, CAPSTONE will take four months to reach its odd orbit, initially reaching an altitude of 810,000 miles/1.3 million kilometers from Earth – well past the moon – before being withdrawn to it.
What CAPSTONE will do
CAPSTONE will test the stability of a new orbit around the moon. Known as a near rectilinear halo orbit, it is basically an elongated, elliptical, oval orbit located at a precise point of equilibrium between the Earth’s and Moon’s gravity. Orbit will place CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole at its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other at its peak every seven days.
NASA wants to use this orbit for its Lunar Gateway space station, which it plans to assemble over the next few years to support its Artemis-crewed landings on the moon.
The novel orbit provides an unobstructed view of Earth and good coverage of the lunar south pole, where Artemis III is expected to land two astronauts and eventually establish a lunar base in 2024/2025.
“CAPSTONE will be precisely controlled and maintained, and will benefit tremendously from the near-steady-state physics of its near-linear halo orbit,” said Elwood Agasid, deputy program manager for small spacecraft technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California. “The burns are timed to give the spacecraft an extra boost as it naturally builds momentum — this requires far 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 position relative to the Moon without relying on communications with ground stations on Earth.
“This orbit has the added benefit of giving Gateway optimal communications with future Artemis missions operating both on the lunar surface and back to Earth,” Agasid said. “This could open up new possibilities for future lunar exploration and exploration efforts.”
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.