NASA wants to experiment with a new orbit around the moon, which it hopes to use in the coming years to land astronauts on the lunar surface again.
So it sends a test satellite up from New Zealand. The initial phase of the launch went according to plan late Tuesday, when the rocket carrying the satellite entered space.
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone CubeSat satellite – only about the size of a microwave oven – will be the first to take the new orbit around the moon and send back important information for at least six months.
Technically, the new orbit is called a near-straight line halo orbit. It is an elongated egg shape, with one end close to the moon and the other far away.
Imagine pulling a rubber band back from your thumb. Your thumb would represent the moon and the rubber band would represent the trajectory.
“It will have a balance. Attitude. Balance,” NASA wrote on its website. “This pioneering CubeSat will practically be able to sit back and rest in a gravitational sweet spot in space – where the gravity of the Earth and Moon combine to allow for a near-stable orbit.”
Eventually, NASA plans to launch a space station called Gateway from which astronauts can descend to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis program.
For the satellite mission, NASA has teamed up with two commercial companies. California-based Rocket Lab launched the rocket with the satellite, which in turn is owned and operated by Colorado-based Advanced Space.
The mission came about relatively quickly and inexpensively for NASA, with the total mission cost estimated at $32.7 million.
Putting the 25-kilogram satellite into orbit will take more than four months and will be done in three phases.
First, Rocket Lab’s small electron rocket launched from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Just nine minutes later, the second stage, called the Photon, separated and went into Earth orbit. For the next five days, Photon’s engines are scheduled to fire regularly to elevate its orbit farther and farther from Earth.
Six days after launch, Photon’s engines will fire one last time to allow it to escape Earth orbit and head to the Moon.
Photon will then release the satellite, which has its own small propulsion system but doesn’t use much power as it flies to the moon for four months, with some planned course corrections along the way.
“Perfect electron launch!” Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck tweeted on Tuesday. “The lunar photon is in low-Earth orbit.”
Rocket Lab spokesman Morgan Bailey said it is the most ambitious and complex mission it has undertaken to date and comes after more than two years of working with NASA and Advanced Space. She said it’s the first time Rocket Lab is testing its HyperCurie engine, which will be used to power Photon.
“Certainly a lot of tough issues to solve along the way, but we ticked them off one by one and made it to launch day,” said Bailey.
Bailey said one of the advantages of orbit is that, in theory, a space station should be able to maintain continuous communications with Earth since it would avoid being eclipsed by the moon.
https://nypost.com/2022/06/28/nasa-hopes-new-zealand-launch-will-pave-way-for-moon-landing/ NASA hopes the New Zealand launch will pave the way for the moon landing