CAPSTONE launch at Rocket Lab begins NASA’s return to the moon

The company’s electron rocket carrying the CAPSTONE mission takes off from New Zealand on June 28, 2022.

rocket lab

Rocket Lab launched a small spacecraft to the moon from its New Zealand facility early Tuesday, a mission that marks a first for both the company and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The company’s Electron rocket carried a special version of its Photon satellite platform, carrying a 55-pound, microwave-sized spacecraft called the CAPSTONE.

“Perfect Electron Launch!” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tweeted on Tuesday.

CAPSTONE, an acronym for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, is a low-cost mission that marks the first launch under NASA’s Lunar Artemis program.

With a cost of just under $30 million, NASA hopes the mission will test whether a particular type of lunar orbit is suitable for the Lunar Gateway space station, which the agency plans to launch later this decade.

Gateway’s success does not depend on this data, NASA’s Christopher Baker, head of the small spacecraft technology program, told CNBC ahead of the launch. But, he added, CAPSTONE allows the agency to base its orbital calculations “on actual data” and give “operational experience in the near-straight line Halo orbit.”

Photon is currently in orbit around Earth and will fire its engine several times over the coming days before sending the CAPSTONE spacecraft on a trajectory that will take about four months to reach the moon. There, CAPSTONE will remain in orbit around the moon for at least six months to collect data.

The CAPSTONE spacecraft was mounted on the company’s Photon lunar probe.

rocket lab

CAPSTONE also represents the first Rocket Lab mission to go “deep space” — venturing beyond the company’s signature goal of low Earth orbit.

NASA approached a small group of companies to make CAPSTONE a reality. In addition to Rocket Lab’s electron rocket and photon spacecraft, Colorado-based company Advanced Space CAPSTONE developed and will operate it, while two Californian companies built the small spacecraft and provided its propulsion system — Terran Orbital and Stellar Exploration, respectively.

“Every major component here actually comes from a company that has received a small business award from the government for the last 10 years to develop the technology that will be used for this mission,” NASA’s Baker said.

“We’re very interested in how we can support and leverage the commercial capabilities of the US to advance what’s possible – and one of the things we’ve really pushed for over the years has been how we scale the reach.” small spacecraft can extend orbit beyond low Earth to challenging new targets,” added Baker.