Launch of lunar CubeSat moved from Virginia to New Zealand

Artist’s illustration of the CAPSTONE spacecraft near the moon. Credit: NASA/Rocket Lab/Advanced Space/Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems

The launch of a miniature trailblazer probe for NASA’s planned Gateway lunar space station has been moved from Rocket Lab’s new launch pad in Virginia to the company’s spaceport in New Zealand, officials recently announced.

NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, mission will test deep space navigation and communications technology in the vicinity of the moon. CAPSTONE will also demonstrate maneuvers to enter and operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit, an elliptical orbit around the moon that will be home to the Gateway, a critical piece of NASA’s architecture to return humans to the lunar surface.

The Gateway is a mini-space station NASA intends to use as a staging point for crewed lunar landings later in the 2020s.

Rocket Lab won a $9.95 million NASA contract in February 2020 to launch the CAPSTONE mission aboard the company’s Electron rocket, with an extra boost from Rocket Lab’s Photon propulsion platform to send the small spacecraft toward the moon.

At the time, NASA and Rocket Lab said CAPSTONE would take off from a new Electron launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, in early 2021. Rocket Lab announced Aug. 6 that CAPSTONE is now slated to launch from the company’s operational launch base on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Rocket Lab, which is headquartered in Southern California, did not say why the launch of the CAPSTONE mission moved from Virginia to New Zealand. The company intended to begin launching from Virginia in 2020.

The new Electron launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is located adjacent to the launch pad used by Northrop Grumman’s much larger Antares rocket. The site lies on property owned by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Delays in NASA’s certification of the Electron rocket’s new autonomous flight safety system have kept Rocket Lab from beginning service from the Virginia launch base.

In June, officials at Wallops said they hope to complete certification of the new autonomous flight safety system by the end of the year, enabling the first Rocket Lab launch from U.S. soil.

The 55-pound (25-kilogram) CAPSTONE spacecraft will ride Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron launcher on its initial climb into space. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform, which also serves as an upper stage, will perform a series of orbit-raising burns and a final trans-lunar injection maneuver to send the CAPSTONE spacecraft toward the moon.

An Electron launcher lifts off in January from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1A in New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

CAPSTONE will fly on a low-energy ballistic trajectory to the moon after separating from the Photon upper stage about a week after launch. The journey will take three-to-four months, according to NASA, before the spacecraft maneuvers itself into the planned near rectilinear halo orbit, passing as close as 1,000 miles (1,500 kilometers) and as far as 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the moon.

The elongated orbit’s advantages include the relative ease of entering and exiting the orbit. A spacecraft in a near rectilinear halo orbit also has a continuous view of Earth, ensuring a constant communications link with ground controllers. The orbit also gives lunar landers access to the moon’s south pole.

The CAPSTONE mission is led by Advanced Space, a small Colorado-based company. Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of California is supplying the spacecraft bus, which is about the size of a microwave oven. CAPSTONE’s hydrazine propulsion system is built by Stellar Exploration, also headquartered in California.

CAPSTONE will be the first lunar mission launched by Rocket Lab.

“Flexible isn’t a word usually used to describe lunar missions, but operating two launch complexes gives us the freedom to select a site that best meets mission requirements and schedule,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “Our team is immensely proud to be launching one of the first pathfinding missions to support NASA’s goal of delivering a sustainable and robust presence on the moon.”

CAPSTONE’s tech demo mission will last about six months.

The next steps in preparing for CAPSTONE’s launch include final assembly of the spacecraft, and shipment of the satellite from the United States to New Zealand in late September for integration with Rocket Lab’s Photon upper stage and Electron launcher.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.