2022 was set to be a big year for Moon missions, from both well-established space agencies and private firms. However, a multitude of scheduled launches have not panned out, meaning NASA’s CAPSTONE gets the honor of being the first moonshot to actually lift off so far this year.
In the long tradition of NASA missions, its name is a mouthful – but has been abbreviated to a snappier acronym. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, is a humble microwave-sized CubeSat with lofty goals.
CAPSTONE is a pathfinder for the eccentric orbit planned for NASA’S much-anticipated Lunar Gateway, a space station set to orbit the Moon and act as an outpost to support the Artemis missions – and perhaps, one day, be a stepping stone to Mars.
Not only is it set to test out some pretty innovative navigating technologies, but it's also out to prove that the mathematical models for Gateway’s planned unusual halo-shaped orbit can work – the first spacecraft to ever travel in this orbit shape.
As NASA described it so eloquently: “It will have equilibrium. Poise. Balance. This pathfinding CubeSat will practically be able to kick back and rest in a gravitational sweet spot in space – where the pull of gravity from Earth and the Moon interact to allow for a nearly-stable orbit – allowing physics to do most of the work of keeping it in orbit around the Moon.”
CAPSTONE is commercially owned by Advanced Space in Colorado and is a collaboration between the space agency and a private aerospace company. It launched on another private industry rocket, this time from Rocket Lab – yes, they of the catching a falling rocket in the sky with a helicopter fame.
Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-US company, has its own launch complex on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. Its Electron rocket launched the little CubeSat that could this morning at 5 am ET (9 am UTC).
This was Rocket Lab's first deep-space mission beyond low-Earth orbit. The company is actually planning its own mission to Venus using its Electron boosters, making CAPSTONE a successful dry run.
"Perfect Electron launch! Lunar photon is in Low Earth Orbit," Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck tweeted.
CAPSTONE is now on its way to test out the new type of lunar orbit, forging the way for future Artemis missions that will see the return of humans to the surface of the Moon.