A microwave-sized satellite successfully broke free from Earth orbit on Monday and is heading for the moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the planet again. lunar surface.
The Capstone satellite has already made an unusual journey . It was launched six days ago from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand by Rocket Lab in one of its small Electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the moon, as it moves using minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that it’s hard to put his excitement into words.
“It’s probably going to take time to figure that out. It’s a project that took us two years, two and a half years and is just incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute,” he said. “So to see all of this come to fruition tonight and see this spacecraft on its way to the moon is absolutely epic. »
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA put it at $32.7 million — marked the start of a new era for space exploration.
“For a few tens of millions of dollars, there’s now a rocket and a spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an insane ability that has never existed before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send vital information for months as the first to take a new orbit around the moon called a near-rectilinear halo orbit: an elongated egg shape with one end of the orbit passing close to the moon and the other far from it.
Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in this orbit, from where astronauts can descend to the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program.
According to Beck, the advantage of this new orbit is that it minimizes fuel consumption and allows the satellite – or a space station – to remain in constant contact with the Earth.
The Electron rocket which launched on June 28 from New Zealand was carrying a second spacecraft called Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was carried for six days in Photon, with the spacecraft’s engines firing up periodically to raise its orbit further and further from Earth.
A final explosion of the engines on Monday enabled Photon to break free from Earth’s gravitational pull and send the satellite on its way. The 25-kilogram satellite is now expected to fly well past the moon before falling back into its new lunar orbit on November 13. The satellite will use small amounts of fuel to make some course corrections along the way.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launches successfully from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. NASA wants to experiment with a new orbit around the Moon that it hopes to use in the coming years to make new landing astronauts on the lunar surface. Credit: Rocket Lab via the AP
Beck said they would decide in the coming days what to do with Photon, which had completed its tasks and still had some fuel left in the tank.
“There are a number of really cool missions we can do with him,” Beck said.
For this mission, NASA partnered with two commercial companies: Rocket Lab, based in California, and Advanced Space, based in Colorado, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.