After circling the Earth for six days, NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite is officially on its way to the moon, where it will test a new orbit for future missions.
The microwave-sized satellite was blasted into space aboard an Electron launch system by Long Beach-based Rocket Lab. The rocket delivered CAPSTONE, which is owned and operated by Advanced Space on behalf of NASA, and one of Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon spacecraft to orbit in the early morning Tuesday, June 28.
CAPSTONE traveled around Earth with Photon incrementally igniting its 3D-printed HyperCurie engine to alter the spacecraft’s orbit around the planet before reaching an apogee (the farthest point from Earth during its orbit) over 43,000 miles.
After the final burn of the Photon engines, CAPSTONE was deployed on a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the moon at 12:18 am Long Beach time Monday, traveling 24,500 mph. The satellite will use its own propulsion and the sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way.
The release of CAPSTONE to its lunar trajectory marks the completion of Rocket Lab’s role in the mission.
“The Rocket Lab team has been working on CAPSTONE with NASA and our mission partners for more than two years, developing new small satellite technology in the form of the Lunar Photon spacecraft to make this mission possible,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “So it’s an incredible feeling after all that hard work and innovation to achieve mission success and set CAPSTONE on a course for the Moon.”
The journey to the moon is expected to take about four months, with CAPSTONE expected to arrive at its lunar orbit on Nov. 13.
The satellite will, for the first time, test a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit around the moon. Data from CAPSTONE will inform future lunar missions, including NASA’s Gateway program—a small, human-tended space station that will orbit the moon and provide extensive support for NASA’s Artemis campaign.
“The CAPSTONE mission marks the beginning of humanity’s return to the Moon,” Beck said.
Artemis is expected to land the first woman and person of color on the moon as part of establishing a long-term presence on the Earth’s only natural satellite.
CAPSTONE will be the first US satellite to settle into orbit around the moon in nearly a decade. The last US orbiter was the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, which launched aboard one of Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur V rockets September 7, 2013.
The LADEE mission ended on April 18, 2014, when the spacecraft’s controllers intentionally crashed it into the dark side of the moon.
Including its recent mission, the firm has successfully launched 27 electron rockets and delivered 147 satellites to orbit. CAPSTONE is the first deep-space mission for Rocket Lab, which was founded in 2006.
The mission also featured several other “significant technological firsts,” according to the company. CAPSTONE marks the first use of the Photon as well as the first collaborative mission between Rocket Lab and Advanced Solutions—a Colorado-based flight-software firm acquired by Rocket Lab last year.
Other company firsts include:
- The first time using the FR-lite satellite radio, for which Rocket Lab has an exclusive manufacturing license agreement with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory;
- The first mission where Electron’s second stage deorbited the same day as launch; and
- Rocket Lab’s first mission planning and executing lunar trajectories.
With a payload of 661 pounds, CAPSTONE was Electron’s heaviest lift to date.
“This has been Rocket Lab’s most complex mission to date and our team has been incredible,” Beck said. “We pushed Electron and Photon to their limits and proved it’s possible to do big missions with small spacecraft.”
“Now we’ll be applying this ground-breaking technology for more interplanetary journeys,” Beck added, “including our upcoming missions to Venus and Mars.”