Rocket Lab to launch NASA lunar satellite

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Rocket Lab announces that it will pursue moon missions by 2020.
Image: Rocket Lab

Though it hasn’t received much public attention yet, NASA is working on a project called the lunar Gateway. Essentially, it will be like a miniature version of the International Space Station (ISS) that orbits the moon and allows astronauts to train for life away from Earth prior to embarking on future moon landings and Mars missions.

Recently, Rocket Lab, a California-based launch company, won a NASA contract to deliver a tiny satellite into lunar orbit. The mission is a big one for the startup as it marks its first time venturing out of Earth orbit.

Ready for Liftoff

Rocket Lab has set itself apart from the rapidly growing crowd of private launch companies by focusing on cheaper launches for light payloads. Its proprietary Electron rocket helps it accomplish this. The vehicle is cost-effective and can be produced quickly to meet Rocket Lab’s goal of a quick turnover rate.

Now, an Electron rocket will carry a 55-pound satellite called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) to lunar orbit. The mission is scheduled to take place in early 2021.

Rocket Lab will launch the tiny cubesat on NASA’s behalf from its pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. A two-stage Election rocket will blast the satellite into space before a Photon bus system transports it toward the moon. CAPSTONE’s journey will take about three months before it is able to settle into a “rectilinear halo orbit” around Earth’s nightly celestial body.

NASA’s Marshall Smith says, “CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway.”

He goes on to add, “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

Essentially, CAPSTONE will serve as an early reconnaissance party before NASA sends up more expensive equipment for the lunar Gateway project.

Pushing the Limits

Thus far, Rocket Lab has launched 11 missions with its Electron launch vehicle. However, all of those flights simply delivered various payloads into Earth orbit.

As such, heading to the moon’s orbit is a huge step forward for the spaceflight startup. It will allow Rocket Lab to push the limits of what it can offer customers in the future. Simultaneously, it will be a test for Electron and the various systems that transport the payload deeper into space.

Should this mission go successfully, Rocket Lab will find itself in a unique position with NASA. The startup would have proven that it is able to deliver payloads to the projected orbit of the lunar Gateway. With plenty of moon-bound equipment in the coming years, that could be a highly profitable situation.

Of course, first and foremost, Rocket Lab needs to nail the CAPSTONE mission. NASA is shelling out $9.95 million for the flight. It’s also giving the startup plenty of time to get the details right. Come next year, the CAPSTONE launch will be a major event to keep an eye on.

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