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The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat satellite took off from New Zealand on Tuesday. Though only the size of a microwave oven, the experiment is set to orbit the Moon and send vital information back to Earth.
“CAPSTONE is a pathfinder in many ways, and it will demonstrate several technology capabilities during its mission timeframe while navigating a never-before-flown orbit around the Moon,” said Elwood Agasid, project manager for CAPSTONE at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “CAPSTONE is laying a foundation for Artemis, Gateway, and commercial support for future lunar operations.”
Rocket Lab and NASA have launched the Capstone spacecraft to the Moon! 🌑
The spacecraft is intended to to test a new orbit for NASA’s Artemis missions. pic.twitter.com/VkHvR8gVQw
— Everything Space (@totalspace360) June 28, 2022
Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for CAPSTONE and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, celebrated the successful launch in NASA’s statement. The company owns and operates CAPSTONE on behalf of NASA.
“Delivering the spacecraft for launch was an accomplishment for the entire mission team, including NASA and our industry partners. Our team is now preparing for separation and initial acquisition for the spacecraft in six days,” Cheetham said.
“We have already learned a tremendous amount getting to this point, and we are passionate about the importance of returning humans to the Moon, this time to stay!” he added.
The CubeSat’s orbit will be elongated at a precise balance point in the gravities of the Earth and the Moon, requiring minimal energy to run.
“CAPSTONE’s orbit also establishes a location that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond,” according to NASA’s description of the satellite.
“The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days, requiring less propulsion capability for spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface,” compared to other circular orbits.
The CAPSTONE satellite is only one aspect of the exciting plans in development. A space station called Gateway is hoping to orbit the Moon for 15 years. The Gateway anticipates orbiting the Moon to offer essential support for a long-term human return to the lunar surface and to serve as a staging location for future space exploration.
The goal of sending humans back to the surface of the Moon has been a long-term research project by NASA. The last American astronaut to walk the lunar surface was Gener Cernan, known as the “last man on the Moon” for his 1972 Apollo 17 landing.
According to NASA Science, 24 American astronauts “made the trip from the Earth to the Moon” between 1968 and 1971. Of those, 10 remain alive today.
In 2021, NASA announced a partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX as part of its Artemis program to once again send astronauts to the Moon. The project’s goals also include landing the first woman on the Moon and the first person of color.