NASA just launched a tiny cubesat. Here's why it's a huge step for space exploration

The historic mission just launched atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's Electron at launch (left) and a render of CAPSTONE in lunar orbit (right).1,2

Rocket Lab launched NASA's tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft on a months-long trip to the Moon.

It launched yesterday, June 28, atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster, from the company's Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand at 5:55 a.m. EDT (0955 GMT; 9:55 p.m. local time).

The mission will test the stability of the orbit NASA intends to use for its lunar Gateway orbital outpost. If all goes to plan, it will go down in history as a key step in NASA's plans to establish and maintain a permanent presence on the moon.

Rocket Lab and NASA launch historic lunar cubesat mission

CAPSTONE (short for "Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment") will take a while to reach the moon. Unlike the Apollo missions, which took off atop NASA's extremely powerful Saturn V rocket, the tiny CAPSTONE cubesat launched on a 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Rocket Lab Electron designed primarily to launch satellites into orbit. 

This means that CAPSTONE, which is now hitching a ride aboard Photon, Rocket Lab's spacecraft carrier, on its way to the moon, will not reach its intended lunar orbit until November 13.

The Photon spacecraft carrying CAPSTONE was fitted into the two-stage Electron's upper stage and was separated from the upper stage into low Earth orbit roughly nine minutes after launch.

"Capstone was the heaviest and hardest mission we have ever lifted by a long way but Electron completed the lift flawlessly even with performance to spare," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote on Twitter shortly after the launch, adding that Photon was in low Earth orbit at the time.

Photon will now gradually boost its orbit with a series of engine burns over the next five days. On the sixth day after launch, it will perform a final burn to increase its velocity to 24,500 mph (39,500 kph). This will allow it to escape Earth orbit and start its trip to the moon. Approximately 20 minutes after that final burn, Photon will deploy the CAPSTONE cubesat on its lunar trajectory.

The cubesat will occasionally fire its own thrusters over the next few months as it makes its slow, energy-efficient journey to the moon. The slow journey is part of what allowed NASA to keep the mission to a relatively low — for space operations – $30 million budget.

Paving the way for NASA's lunar Gateway outpost

Once it arrives at its intended target, CAPSTONE will insert itself into a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) of the moon. Its journey will eventually take it as far as 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Earth. This orbit is so far untested. NASA officials believe it is highly stable, meaning it would be ideal for NASA's future lunar outpost, which will form a vital component of its plans to eventually reach Mars.

The gravitational effect of both the moon and the Earth mean that space stations and spacecraft shouldn't have to use much fuel to stay in the NRHO. As a point of reference, the International Space Station orbiting Earth has to periodically reboost its orbit — something that was only carried out by Russian spacecraft until recently.

NASA just launched a tiny cubesat. Here's why it's a huge step for space exploration
An artist's impression of NASA's lunar Gateway outpost. Source: NASA

NASA's lunar Gateway outpost will eventually serve as a stop-off point for crewed missions to the lunar surface. The U.S. space agency recently announced it aims to send parts of the orbital station to the moon in late 2024. Russia and China are separately working on their own lunar outpost after Russia's space agency Roscosmos opted out of collaborating with NASA on its Gateway program.

In any case, before NASA's Gateway plans can go ahead, CAPSTONE will spend six months in the NRHO to assess its stability. Stay posted for more updates on NASA and Rocket Lab's tiny cubesat mission with potentially enormous ramifications for the future of space exploration.

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