NASA launches CAPSTONE cubesat on anticipated moon mission

On Tuesday NASA launched their tiny 55-pound (25 kilograms) cubesat from a Rocket Lab Electron booster on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. The CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) moon mission, as the name suggests, is aiming for the moon to test the stability of the orbit that NASA could potentially use for its Gateway space outpost.

The CAPSTONE mission shall be deployed after reaching the lunar orbit in November this year.  It is said to insert itself into a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon, which is an untested spot in space. It can be considered the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit and act as a pathfinder for Gateway, a moon-orbiting outpost part of the Artemis program.

Although mission engineers find NRHO to be highly stable, no spacecraft has ever occupied a lunar NRHO before. Thus assumptions about stability are mere assumptions right now. The Cubesat is to spend at least 6 months in NRHO assessing its characteristics.  Nujoud Merancy, NASA’s Chief of the exploration mission planning office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston said, “The reason we’re in this orbit is it’s incredibly stable. but also relatively close to the moon.”

For Rocket Lab, which had never before launched a deep-space mission, CAPSTONE is a significant accomplishment. But if everything goes as planned, Rocket Lab will soon launch more distant missions; the California-based corporation hopes to send at least one life-hunting mission to Venus in the next few years.

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