NASA is finally set to launch its ‘CAPSTONE’ spacecraft mission on Tuesday morning, marking an important early stage in its Artemis programme.
The spacecraft, which is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs just 55 pounds, will blast off from Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand at 5:55 EDT (10:55 BST).
Over six months, it will test the stability of a halo-shaped orbit around the moon before this orbit is used by Lunar Gateway, NASA’s planned lunar outpost.
Lunar Gateway will serve as a ‘staging area’ for landing humans on the moon for the first time in 50 years and potentially as a jumping-off point for missions to Mars.
The public can watch today’s CAPSTONE launch from New Zealand on NASA Live.
‘CAPSTONE will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this unique, halo-shaped orbit,’ NASA said.
‘CAPSTONE is targeted to launch no earlier than Tuesday, June 28, with an instantaneous launch opportunity at 5:55 a.m. EDT (9:55 UTC).’
The spacecraft, which was originally scheduled to launch in October 2021, is being sent into space on an ‘Electron’ booster rocket built by US firm Rocket Lab.
Electron is ready to blast off from Rocket Lab’s Māhia Peninsula launch site, on New Zealand’s North Island.
CAPSTONE is an abbreviation for ‘Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment’.
It is unique in that it will travel on an elongated halo-shaped orbit, which will bring it as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.
It will use its propulsion system to travel for approximately three to four months before entering into orbit around the moon. One orbit will occur every seven days.
While it usually takes a few days for a spacecraft to reach the moon, CAPSTONE will take much longer as it’s travelling at a slower speed and has to take a longer route to gear itself for an unusual oval shape.
The strange-shaped orbit, officially called a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), has never before been tried in space.
The orbit’s route is located at a precise balance point in the gravities of the Earth and moon, meaning less energy is expended.
‘The stability of this orbit will allow CAPSTONE to behave almost like it’s held in place by the gravity of Earth and the moon,’ Elwood Agasid at NASA’s Ames Research Center told The Next Web.
‘It requires little energy for station-keeping or to manoeuvre into other cislunar orbits [those between the earth and the moon].’
CAPSTONE will orbit this area around the moon for at least six months to understand ‘the characteristics of the orbit’, according to NASA.
The space agency said: ‘It will validate the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, reducing logistical uncertainties.
‘It will also demonstrate the reliability of innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solutions as well as communication capabilities with Earth.’
The first parts for the Lunar Gateway are not set to launch until November 2024 at the very earliest, giving NASA plenty of time to assess the results from CAPSTONE.
Described as a ‘vital component’ of NASA’s Artemis programme, the Lunar Gateway will be a small space station orbiting the moon, acting as a ‘multi-purpose outpost’.
The official word is that NASA’s Artemis programme will land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2025, although this could be pushed back again, NASA Investigator General Paul Martin recently suggested.
NASA’s original date for landing humans on the moon again was 2024, but last year it delayed the date, largely blamed on litigation from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin.
Also this year, NASA will be sending manikins to space as part of the Artemis I mission in August 2022.
Artemis I will pave the way for crewed flights – Artemis II, which will launch in May 2024 and fly by the moon without landing on it, and Artemis III, which will actually touch down on the lunar surface.
Artemis III, which will launch ‘no earlier than 2025’, will be the first to land humans on the moon in more than 50 years, since Apollo 17 in December 1972.