WELLINGTON, New Zealand– A satellite the size of a microwave oven successfully de-orbited Earth on Monday and is heading for the moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface.
It was already an unusual journey for the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula by the Rocket Lab company in one of their small electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the moon as it flies with minimal energy expenditure.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press it was hard to put his excitement into words.
“It will probably take a while for us to settle in. It was a project that took us two, two and a half years and it’s just incredibly, incredibly difficult to do,” he said. “So to see it all come together tonight and to see this spacecraft heading to the moon is just absolutely epic.”
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA put it at $32.7 million — marked the beginning of a new era for space exploration.
“For tens of millions of dollars, there’s now a rocket and spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus and to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an amazing ability that’s never been seen before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back important information for months as it becomes the first to adopt a new orbit around the moon called the near-straight line halo orbit: a sprawled egg shape with one end of the orbit close to the moon over and the other far away.
Eventually, NASA plans to launch a space station called Gateway from which astronauts can descend to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis program.
According to Beck, the benefit of the new orbit is that it minimizes fuel burn and allows the satellite — or a space station — to stay in constant contact with Earth.
The Electron rocket, launched from New Zealand on June 28, carried a second spacecraft called Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was transported in photons for six days, with the spacecraft’s engines firing periodically to push its orbit farther and farther from Earth.
A final engine failure on Monday allowed Photon to break free of Earth’s gravity and send the satellite on its way. The plan now calls for the 25-kilogram satellite to rocket far beyond the moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on November 13th.
Beck said they would decide in the coming days what to do with Photon, which has completed its duties and still has some fuel in the tank.
“There’s a bunch of really cool missions we can do with it,” Beck said.
For the mission, NASA has partnered with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.