NASA’s small CAPSTONE CubeSat is making good progress on its long journey to the moon.
The 55 pounds (25 kilograms) CAPSTONE launched into Earth orbit aboard a Rocket Lab Electron Booster on Monday (June 28). CAPSTONE remains in orbit, linked to Rocket Labs photon spaceship bus, but he is getting further and further away from his home planet.
“The moon just got a little closer! We successfully fired Photon’s HyperCurie engine a sixth time, raising the peak of #CAPSTONE to 69,680 km [43,300 miles]. Since we combined 2 burns to 1 for this maneuver, there is only one final burn left to put CAPSTONE on a lunar ballistic transfer to the moon,” a Rocket Lab representative said said this morning via Twitter (opens in new tab) (July 1). (Apogee is the farthest point in a satellite’s elliptical orbit.)
Related: Why NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe is taking so long to reach the moon
This final burn that the photonKEYSTONE Duo at 24,500 mph (39,400 km/h), could occur as early as Monday (July 4), Rocket Lab said Another tweet today (opens in new tab). Within 20 minutes of combustion, Photon CAPSTONE will deploy, and the microwave-oven-sized cubesat will make its own way to the moon.
This journey will be long and circuitous as CAPSTONE travels up to 810,000 miles (1.3 million km) from Earth before being pulled back by the Earth-Moon system’s gravity. Mission planners chose this indirect route because it’s very fuel efficient and they need efficiency after launch aboard the 59-foot (18-meter) Electron, which is designed to launch small satellites into Earth orbit.
Finally, on November 13, the spacecraft will enter near-straight line halo orbit (NRHO). the moona highly elliptical path that will take it as close as 1,600 km to the lunar surface and as far as 70,000 km (43,500 miles) on its narrowest path.
Never before has a spacecraft manned an NRHO on the moon, and that’s why CAPSTONE flies there. NASA plans to build the Gateway space station, a key element of the agency Artemis program of lunar exploration into an NRHO and uses CAPSTONE to test orbital stability.
CAPSTONE will also conduct some navigation and communications tests during its time on the moon. The latter tests are carried out in cooperation with NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiterswhich has been studying the moon up close since 2009.
CAPSTONE (short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) is a NASA mission, but the agency isn’t in charge of day-to-day operations. Colorado-based Advanced Space is operating the mission after winning a $20 million NASA contract to do the work in 2019.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).