Sometimes the best things in life come in small packages. Look no further than NASA’s upcoming mission to send a microwave-sized satellite to the moon.
The agency will launch the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), a 55-pound lunar satellite that could easily fit on a bookshelf. What it lacks in size it will more than make up for in its mission to design a unique orbit around the moon that will one day be home to a lunar outpost for the Artemis program.
Launch is scheduled for June 27 at 5:50 a.m. ET. Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based private space company that made headlines last month when it managed to catch a falling rocket booster with a helicopter (sort of) will launch CAPSTONE into the cosmos. The company will use the same type of small rocket called the Electron to launch the satellite into low Earth orbit, although it won’t attempt to catch another rocket booster helicopter.
“This mission is incredibly complex, and it’s the highest performance we’ve ever attempted to squeeze out of the Electron rocket,” Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck told The Daily Beast. He later added that “this is going to be very different” from last month’s helicopter catch.
““I think there’s a real credit to NASA for being able to focus on the things they’re really good at and allowing the industry to focus on the things they’re really good at.””
— Peter Beck, rocket laboratory
The CAPSTONE mission will host a number of firsts. For one, CAPSTONE will be the first spacecraft to enter a unique orbit known as Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), which will be guided in an elongated oval orbit around the moon — up to 1,000 miles to one of the lunar poles and up to 43,500 miles from the other pole. The spacecraft will also be in full view of Earth at all times, allowing it to communicate with its controllers on the mainland. This is the intended orbit of the future Lunar Gateway outpost, a proposed space station that will support manned lunar exploration and more.
Exploring this orbit is “the core of this mission,” Beck said. “The satellite will allow us to test this orbit and understand how it works from a communications and stability standpoint. That allows future programs to bring things like space stations and orbiting nodes there to go to the moon and also to Mars.”
Oddly enough, NASA already has plenty of data and modeling information saying this orbit will work well for a future outpost. However, the agency still believes CAPSTONE is important to demonstrate the viability of NRHO to conduct spacecraft-to-spacecraft communications relayed by a NASA satellite already in orbit around the Moon. This lays the foundation for Gateway’s future communication with lunar spacecraft.
Overall, CAPSTONE is the de facto de facto first mission of the Artemis Project, the much-anticipated but often-delayed successor to Apollo, with the goal of returning humans to the moon and laying a foundation for establishing a lunar colony. Even Chris Baker, a senior engineer at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, admitted Ars Technica in an interview that there isn’t too much to learn from the mission that the modeling didn’t already predict. Nevertheless, it is important to be able to validate theories and finally literally get the ailing project off the ground.
The mission will also mark the first time a commercial rocket has gone to the moon. In addition, CAPSTONE was developed in-house and is controlled by Advanced Space, a US-based private space company. It is another signal that the future of NASA – and space exploration as we know it – is being laid squarely on the shoulders of private companies, which offer both great potential for innovation and efficiency and the risk of very costly failure.
“I think there’s a real credit to NASA for being able to focus on the things they’re really good at and allowing the industry to focus on the things they’re really good at,” Beck said . “We are very excited. It is an extremely complex mission, an enormous challenge and quite a high risk. But if everything works, it will be a big payoff.”
So it’s essentially a purely private matter. With the agency canceling large checks, these companies now have a lot of leeway in what they can do and how they do it, without the traditional oversight and bureaucracy you’d expect from a government project. Sure, CAPSTONE will lay the foundation for future NASA projects. But this is just the beginning and opens the real floodgates for the inevitable privatization of lunar missions and possibly the moon itself.
No, that doesn’t necessarily mean buying and selling the moon (although even that could be on the table). It does mean, however, that we can expect an increase in the power and influence of private companies in space exploration. One day they will be able to set mission parameters, choose who gets to work on what, and potentially lay the groundwork for private missions to the Moon and beyond. If we ever get to the point where people vacation to visit the Apollo 11 mission site, those lunar tourists will have Monday’s launch to thank.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/nasa-and-rocket-labs-capstone-mission-launches-the-commercial-era-of-the-moon?source=articles&via=rss NASA and Rocket Lab’s CAPSTONE mission heralds the commercial age of the moon