NASA’s CAPSTONE mission, which will map a new orbit around the moon that will hopefully be used for a future manned space station on the moon, is underway after a successful launch Tuesday morning. Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle put the CAPSTONE satellite, which is about the size of a large microwave oven, into orbit for step one of its lunar journey.
The Electron rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s launch facility in New Zealand at 5:55 a.m. ET, marking Rocket Lab’s 27th flight for its launch vehicle, and the first ever to target the moon. The satellite will remain in low Earth orbit for approximately six days, attached to a specially designed Photon upper stage created by Rocket Lab for this mission, after which Photon will fire its engines for the final time to propagate Earth’s orbit. leaving on a path to deep space, after which CAPSTONE is released to continue before arriving at the moon in about three months.
The goal of the CAPSTONE mission is to use the small satellite to test a new orbit around the moon – an elliptical path that will provide a stable enough orbit to maintain a permanent base of operations for excursions to the lunar surface in Gateway, the planned NASA Lunar Space Station, but also provides a good starting point for deeper space exploration at the farthest point. The moon gate is a key ingredient for NASA’s Artemis program, which will return human astronauts to the surface of the moon.
This is Rocket Lab’s first deep space mission, but it won’t be its last — the company aims to also bring two orbital spacecraft to Mars for a science mission, also on behalf of NASA.