A microwave-sized satellite successfully broke out of its orbit on Monday and is on its way to the moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts back on the lunar surface.
It is a unusual journey already before the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small Electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the moon, as it moves with minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press it was hard to put into words his excitement.
“It’s probably going to take a while to sink in. It’s been a project that’s taken two, two and a half years and it’s just incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute,” he said. “So to see it all come together tonight and see that spacecraft heading for the moon, it’s just absolutely epic.”
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA estimated it at $32.7 million — marked the beginning of a new era for space exploration.
“For several tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus and to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an insane ability that has never existed before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back vital information for months as the first to make a new orbit around the moon, called a near rectilinear halo orbit: an elongated egg shape with one end of the orbit close to the moon. moon and the other far away.
Ultimately, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the surface of the moon as part of the Artemis program.
Beck said the benefit of the new orbit is that fuel consumption is minimized and the satellite — or a space station — stays in constant contact with Earth.
The Electron rocket launched from New Zealand on June 28 carried a second spacecraft called Photon, which broke up after nine minutes. The satellite was transported in Photon for six days, with the spacecraft’s engines firing periodically to raise its orbit farther and farther from Earth.
A final engine failure on Monday allowed Photon to break through Earth’s gravity and send the satellite on its way. The plan now is for the 25-kilogram (55 pounds) satellite to blast far past the moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on Nov. 13. The satellite will use small amounts of fuel to make a few scheduled course corrections along the way.
Beck said they would decide in the next few days what to do with Photon, which had completed its duties and had some fuel left in the tank.
“There are some really cool missions that we can actually do with it,” Beck said.
For the mission, NASA partnered with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.