At the start of 2022, a variety of launches to the moon by space agencies and private companies appeared to be on the horizon. So far, none of them have gotten off the launchpad.
But on Tuesday, the first moonshot of the year, CAPSTONE, is scheduled to lift off. The small spacecraft is sponsored by NASA but is mostly being run by private companies. Here’s what you need to know about CAPSTONE.
When is the launch and how can I watch it?
Coverage of the launch will be begin at 5 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday on NASA Television. The rocket has to launch at an exact moment, 5:55 a.m., for the spacecraft to be lofted to the correct trajectory.
If weather or a technical problem causes the rocket to miss that instant, there are additional chances each day through July 27.
Why is NASA launching CAPSTONE?
The full name of the mission is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will act as a scout for a specific lunar orbit where a crewed space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis, NASA’s program to return astronauts to the lunar surface.
The outpost NASA wants to build, Gateway, will serve as a way station where future crews will stop before continuing on to the moon. NASA decided that the best place to put this outpost would be in what is known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit.
Halo orbits are those influenced by the gravity of two bodies — in this case, the Earth and the moon. The influence of the two bodies helps make the orbit highly stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to keep a spacecraft circling the moon.
The gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at about a 90-degree angle to the line-of-sight view from Earth. (This is the near-rectilinear part of the name.) Thus, a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications would be cut off.
The orbit that Gateway will travel comes within about 2,200 miles of the moon’s North Pole and loops out as far as 44,000 miles away as it goes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about one week.
No spacecraft has ever traveled in this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to confirm its mathematical models for operating its Gateway outpost in a near-rectilinear halo orbit.
Which companies are operating CAPSTONE?
NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The spacecraft belongs to and will be managed by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company just outside of Denver. Advanced Space actually bought the 55-pound, microwave oven-size satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.
It is also being launched not by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other big aerospace contractors, but by Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company that is a leader in delivering small payloads to orbit. The company has its own launch site on New Zealand’s North Island for its Electron rockets.
NASA spent about $20 million for Advanced Space to build and operate the spacecraft as well as just under $10 million for Rocket Lab’s launcher.