The Rocket Lab spacecraft sends NASA’s capstone mission to the moon

The Rocket Lab spacecraft sends NASA's capstone mission to the moon

Rocket Lab has successfully sent a small NASA spacecraft to the Moon, performing a complex interplanetary launch on its first attempt.

The public aerospace company’s (mostly) standard two-stage Electron rocket lifted off from its New Zealand-based LC-1 pad on June 28 with NASA’s tiny 25-kilogram (~55 pound) “Cyslunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation” attached. (CAPSTONE) spacecraft into a low Earth parking orbit without problem. As is common for most modern Electron launches, a short ‘kick phase’ was included for orbital operations and payload deployment, but CAPSTONE’s kick phase and destination were normal.

Instead of shorting a run-of-the-mill low Earth orbit, the capstone’s kick phase was tasked with sending the spacecraft (and by itself) from LEO (~300 km) into a lunar transfer orbit with an APOPSIS 1.2. million kilometers (~750,000 miles) from Earth.

To achieve that feat, Electron’s vastly upgraded Lunar Photon Kick stage had to perform even more. Half a dozen large burns Overcome adversity while maintaining total control, spread over about a week. Generally speaking, Rocket Lab offers three kick stage variants: a standard low-thrust, low-endurance one for short orbital adjustments immediately after launch; The upgraded photon can act as either a long-duration satellite or a kick stage; A more upgraded Photon with larger propellant tanks and a more powerful ‘Hypercury’ engine. With Delta V’s 3200+ meters per second, the second variant can boost significant payloads into high Earth orbits, but is primarily designed for deep space missions – sending payloads. beyond Earth’s orbit.

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Rocket Lab wants to launch its own funded mission(s) to Venus, delivering one or more small atmospheric probes to help turn the curtain on the long-unexplored planet. It also won a 2021 contract to supply a pair of Mars-bound Photon spacecraft buses for NASA’s Escape, Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics explorers.Escape) in 2024, has Multiple orders for Simple photons It will return to Earth orbit and support a few common missions.

Rocket Lab’s first flight-worthy Lunar Photon.

Lunar Photon’s performance at Capstone bodes well for those ambitious future projects. Within hours of reaching orbit, the photon began the orbital lift process. Over the course of five days, Photon made six big burns, effectively taking bigger and bigger ‘steps’ towards the moon. The spacecraft’s seventh and final burn increased its apopsis nearly tenfold from ~70,000 to 1.2 million km from Earth, officially placing the CAPSTONE on a ballistic lunar trajectory (BLT). Although highly efficient, CAPSTONE’s trajectory means it will have to wait until November 2022 to enter lunar orbit using its own small thrusters.

Once there, CAPSTONE will help reduce the risk of future spacecraft by validating advanced navigation technologies and examining the dynamics of lunar near-rectilinear halo orbits (NRHO). The story behind that strange lunar orbit — exploring the surface of the moon isn’t exactly convenient — isn’t very appealing, however. Capstone is essentially a smaller precursor to NASA’s Artemis program, which the agency claims will help “establish the first long-term presence on the Moon.”

In fact, NASA’s concrete plans currently include short, temporary human landings in the 2020s. While it has contracted SpaceX to develop a potentially revolutionary Starship Moon Lander, NASA’s current plan is to use its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft as a $4 billion lunar taxi. Transport astronauts from the Earth’s surface to a waiting starship lander in lunar orbit. The starship would then take those astronauts to the surface, spend about a week on the ground, return to lunar orbit and rendezvous with Orion, which would bring them back to Earth.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft
Lunar Starship. (SpaceX)

Orion’s service module provides about this half As large as NASA’s 50-year-old Apollo Service Module, the Delta V severely limits its use in deep space and makes safe crewed trips to and from low lunar orbits impossible on its own. Instead of improving the spacecraft’s performance and flexibility by upgrading or replacing the European-made Service Module (ESM) over the past decade, NASA has acknowledged that Orion will only be able to send astronauts into lunar orbit, which will always inconvenience surface operations.

The capstone’s ultimate goal, then, is to make sure the spacecraft performs as expected in that compromise orbit — necessary because Orion can’t reach the already well-understood low lunar orbit.

The Rocket Lab spacecraft sends NASA’s capstone mission to the moon

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