The Capstone satellite was launched six days ago from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small Electron rockets. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
Wellington – A microwave-sized satellite successfully freed itself from Earth’s orbit on Monday and is heading for the Moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the lunar surface again.
It was already an unusual trip for the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small Electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the Moon, as it navigates using minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that his enthusiasm is hard to put into words.
“It’s a project that took us two, two and a half years and it’s incredibly difficult to do,” he said. So seeing it all come together tonight and seeing this spaceship traveling to the moon is absolutely epic.
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost – NASA estimated it at $ 32.7 million – marks the beginning of a new era for space exploration.
“For a few tens of millions of dollars, now there is a rocket and a spaceship that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars. It’s a crazy skill that has never existed before, ”Beck said.
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send vital information for months, being the first aircraft of its kind to make a new orbit around the Moon, called a halo orbit, almost straight: in the shape of an elongated egg with one end of the one orbit that passes close to the Moon and the other far from it.
Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in this orbit, from where astronauts can descend to the Moon’s surface as part of its Artemis program.
Beck said the advantage of the new orbit is that it minimizes fuel consumption and allows the satellite – or a space station – to remain in constant contact with Earth.
The Electron rocket launched on June 28 from New Zealand was carrying a second spacecraft called the Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was transported for six days in the Photon spacecraft, the latter’s engines turning on periodically to increase its orbit farther and farther from Earth.
On Monday, a final thrust of the engine allowed Photon to break away from Earth’s gravitational pull and send the satellite on its way. The 25-kilogram satellite is expected to far outpace the Moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on November 13. Along the way, the satellite will use small amounts of fuel to make some planned course corrections.
Mr. Beck said Rocket Lab would decide in the next few days what to do with Photon, who had completed his homework and still had fuel in the tank.
“There are a number of really exciting missions that we can actually do with it,” Beck pointed out.
For the mission, NASA partnered with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.