By Carol Vaughn —
Rocket Lab will launch a NASA-funded commercial moon mission from its New Zealand launch complex in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to a press release.
The mission, called CAPSTONE (the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) originally was scheduled to have been launched from the spaceport on Wallops Island.
The CAPSTONE mission was moved to New Zealand to allow NASA more time to complete certification of its software as part of the Autonomous Flight Termination System required to launch from Wallops, according to Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab Director of Communications.
The certification work is expected to be complete toward the end of the year.
“Flexible isn’t a word usually used to describe lunar missions but operating two launch complexes gives us the freedom to select a site that best meets mission requirements and schedule,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab chief executive officer, in the release. “Our team is immensely proud to be launching one of the first pathfinding missions to support NASA’s goal of delivering a sustainable and robust presence on the Moon. We’ve teamed up with the NASA Launch Services Program on previous Electron missions to low Earth orbit, so it’s exciting to be working with them again to go just a bit further than usual…some 380,000 km further,” Beck said.
The CAPSTONE mission is in support of NASA’s Artemis program, during which NASA plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon and to build sustainable elements on and around the moon to allow astronauts and robots to explore and conduct scientific investigations.
NASA plans to use what is learned to ultimately send astronauts to Mars.
CAPSTONE is a 55-pound satellite that will test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit, according to the release. The mission’s purpose is to help reduce risk for future spacecraft “by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit,” according to the release.
The satellite will be launched on an Electron rocket.
According to the release, “The mission is the first time Rocket Lab will use the Photon spacecraft platform as a trans-lunar injection stage to place a satellite on a trajectory that will take it beyond Earth orbit to the Moon.
“After lifting off on Electron to an initial elliptical low-Earth orbit, Photon will separate and use its 3D-printed HyperCurie engine to provide in-space propulsion to allow CAPSTONE to break free of Earth’s gravity and set a course for the Moon.
“After deploying the CAPSTONE satellite, Photon will continue on its own trajectory to conduct a lunar fly-by, while CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion system to enter a cislunar orbit.”
After the three- to four-month trip to the moon, CAPSTONE will enter an elliptical orbit over the moon’s poles for a six-month primary mission.
Advanced Space, of Colorado, owns the satellite and operates the mission. CAPSTONE development is supported by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate via the Small Spacecraft Technology Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
Advanced Exploration Systems within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate supports the launch and mission operations. NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch management.
Construction on Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport started in February 2019 and the complex was officially opened in December 2019.
Launch Complex 2 is designed to support “rapid call-up missions,” according to a release from the company, which said “the ability to deploy satellites to precise orbits in a matter of hours, not months or years, is increasingly important to ensure resilience in space.”
Launch Complex 2 includes a pad made from more than 1,400 cubic yards of concrete, a 66-ton launch platform, and a 44-foot, 7.6-ton “strongback,” which lifts the rocket into launch position.
The company also built an integration and control facility at Wallops Research Park for processing payloads and Electron launch vehicles before liftoff.
The company has announced that both its 57-foot Electron rocket and its 148-foot Neutron rocket will launch from Wallops.
Rocket Lab’s first site, Launch Complex 1, is located on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula.