Rocket Lab’s Photon upper stage completes 3rd of 7 engine firings to get CAPSTONE to Moon

Rocket Lab’s Photon upper stage has now successfully completed the third of seven planned engine burns designed to slowly raise the Earth orbit of NASA’s experimental lunar cubesat CAPSTONE so that it can eventually be sent towards the Moon.

Lunar Photon’s HyperCurie engine will perform a series of orbit raising maneuvers by igniting periodically to increase Photon’s velocity, stretching its orbit into a prominent ellipse around Earth. Six days after launch, HyperCurie will ignite one final time, accelerating Photon Lunar to 24,500 mph (39,500 km/h) and setting it on a ballistic lunar transfer. Within 20 minutes of this final burn, Photon will release CAPSTONE into space for the first leg of the CubeSat’s solo flight. CAPSTONE’s journey to NRHO is expected to take around four months from this point. Assisted by the Sun’s gravity, CAPSTONE will reach a distance of 963,000 miles from Earth – more than three times the distance between Earth and the Moon – before being pulled back towards the Earth-Moon system.

Once in lunar orbit, CAPSTONE will be used to both test operations in that orbit (similar to the one NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station will use) while also demonstrating the use of a cubesat on an interplanetary mission.

CAPSTONE Moon satellite shipped to New Zealand by Terran Orbital

Capitalism in space: Terran Orbital has completed construction of the CAPSTONE Moon smallsat and has now had it shipped to New Zealand for its launch on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket no earlier than May 27th.

Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a Terran Orbital Corporation, built the spacecraft for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, otherwise known as CAPSTONE. The 12U CubeSat includes a radio tower on top that extends its size from a traditional 12U form factor.

CAPSTONE will not go directly to the Moon but instead, follow a “ballistic lunar transfer” that will take it out as far as 1.5 million kilometers before returning into lunar orbit. That transfer, which will take about four months to complete, is designed to save propellant, making the mission feasible for such a small spacecraft. The CAPSTONE payload and its software are owned and operated by Advanced Space for NASA.

CAPSTONE will use Rocket Lab’s Proton upper stage to get it to the Moon. It will then test maneuvering as well as communicating in the lunar halo orbit that NASA wants to use with its Lunar Gateway space station. It will also be proving out the use of this kind of smallsat for future interplanetary missions.

Rocket Lab gets launch contract for lunar cubesat

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded Rocket Lab the contract to launch the privately-built, for NASA, lunar orbiting cubesat CAPSTONE, designed to test technologies and the orbital mechanics required to build its Gateway lunar space station.

This quote says it all:

The firm-fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat.

Using two different private companies, one to build the satellite and the other to launch it, NASA will get a lunar orbiter for just over $23 million. That total equals the rounding error for almost all NASA-built projects.

The launch is set for early 2021.

Test cubesat to launch to Gateway lunar orbit

NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Systems to build a cubesat to test placement and operation in the orbit the agency wishes to place its Lunar Gateway space station.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

While proving the capability of cubesats for these unmanned planetary probes is all to the good, I must once again point out that making this orbit a way station on the way to the Moon actually makes it more difficult to get there. More fuel and equipment is required to transfer to the Moon once you are in Gateway’s planned orbit.

Based on our past experience with NASA boondoggles like this, Gateway will therefore act as a drag on future American lunar exploration. While other nations (China, India) will be landing on the surface, we will repeatedly find that our surface missions are delayed because of the added complexity of going from Earth to Gateway and then to the surface.