Wellington, New Zealand – A satellite the size of a microwave oven succeeded in breaking free from orbit around the Earth on Monday and headed toward the moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the moon again.
It was a truly extraordinary trip to the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand by Rocket Lab in one of its small electronic rockets. It will take the satellite another four months to reach the moon, where it sails using minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that it was hard to put his enthusiasm into words.
“It will probably take a while for us to sink in,” he said. “It was a project that took us two or two and a half years, and it’s incredibly difficult to do.” “So to see it all gather tonight and see that spacecraft on its way to the moon, it’s just totally epic.”
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA estimated it was $32.7 million — marked the beginning of a new era of space exploration.
“For tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an insane ability that didn’t exist before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send out vital information for months as the first time it takes a new orbit around the moon called a semi-straight halo orbit: an elongated egg shape with one end of the orbit passing close to the moon and the other far from it.
Eventually, NASA plans to put a space station called Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.
The advantage of the new orbit, Beck said, is that it reduces fuel use and allows a satellite — or 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 carried for six days in the Photon, with the spacecraft’s engines fired periodically to raise its orbit away from Earth.
A final engine explosion on Monday allowed the Photon to separate from Earth’s gravity and send the satellite on its way. The plan now is for the 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite to far past the moon before falling back into new moon orbit on November 13. The satellite will use tiny amounts of fuel to make some planned course corrections along the moon. road.
Beck said they will decide in the coming days what to do with the Photon, which has completed its tasks and there is still little fuel left in the tank.
“There are a number of really cool tasks we can do with it,” Beck said.
For the mission, NASA has teamed up with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.