NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite has a big mission ahead. It is but a small satellite, roughly the size of a microwave, which will test a crucial step for a human return to the Moon. And it has now left Earth's orbit to reach its destination.
In a few years, there will be a new space station in the heavens. But rather than orbiting Earth, it will be going around the Moon. It's known as the Lunar Gateway and it will orbit our natural satellite in a peculiar orbit, called a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO).
This is one of the theoretical solutions to the three-body problem. General solutions are not stable, but there are solutions that work as long as one of the objects has a negligible mass compared to the other two. A space station there would fit the bill and would need minimal adjustment to its orbit. While the numbers don’t lie, testing is paramount.
So, CAPSTONE will take four months to travel to the Moon and then spend six months in that orbit. The data collected will allow NASA to be sure that the Lunar Gateway’s orbit will be a good one.
CAPSTONE will come 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the Lunar North Pole and 70,000 kilometers (43,500 miles) from the Moon’s south pole. The orbit is expected to take seven days to be completed.
CAPSTONE will enter the NRHO orbit on November 13.