NASA’s CAPSTONE Launch to the Moon: How to Watch


In early 2022, various launches to the Moon by space agencies and private companies seemed to be on the horizon. So far, none of them have left the launch pad.

But on Tuesday, the first moonshot of the year, CAPSTONE, should take off. The small spacecraft is sponsored by NASA but is mostly run by private companies. Here’s what you need to know about CAPSTONE.

Launch coverage will begin Tuesday at 5 a.m. Eastern Time on NASA TV. The rocket must be launched at a specific time, 5:55 a.m., for the spacecraft to be placed on the correct trajectory.

If weather or a technical issue causes the rocket to miss that instant, there are additional chances every day until July 27.

The full name of the mission is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operation and Navigation Experiment. It will act as a pathfinder for a specific lunar orbit where a crewed space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis, NASA’s program to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface.

The outpost NASA wants to build, Gateway, will serve as a way station where future crews will stop before continuing on their way to the Moon. NASA decided that the best place to place this outpost would be in what is called a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

Halo orbits are those influenced by the gravity of two bodies – in this case, the Earth and the Moon. The influence of the two bodies helps make the orbit very stable, minimizing the amount of propellant needed to spin a spacecraft around the moon.

Gravitational interactions also keep the orbit at an angle of about 90 degrees to line of sight from Earth. (It’s the nearly straight part of the name.) So a spacecraft in this orbit never passes behind the moon, where communications would be cut off.

The orbit that Gateway will travel is about 2,200 miles from the moon’s North Pole and loops up to 44,000 miles as it passes over the South Pole. A trip around the moon will take about a week.

No spacecraft has ever traveled to this orbit. Thus, CAPSTONE will provide data to NASA to confirm its mathematical models for operating its Gateway outpost in a near-rectilinear halo orbit.

NASA neither designed nor built CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The spacecraft is owned and will be operated by Advanced Space, a 45-employee company just outside of Denver. Advanced Space actually purchased the 55-pound microwave-sized satellite from another company, Terran Orbital.

It’s also being launched not by SpaceX or any of NASA’s other big aerospace contractors, but by Rocket Lab, a US-New Zealand company that’s a leader in delivering small payloads to orbit. The company has its own launch site on New Zealand’s North Island for its Electron rockets.

NASA spent about $20 million for Advanced Space to build and operate the spacecraft as well as just under $10 million for Rocket Lab’s launch vehicle.

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