WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A microwave-sized satellite successfully broke free from Earth orbit on Monday and is heading for the moon, the latest stage in the plan to NASA aiming to land astronauts on the lunar surface again.
It was an unusual trip already for the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small Electron rockets. It will take another four months for the satellite to reach the moon, as it navigates using minimal energy.
Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that it’s hard to put his enthusiasm into words.
“It’s probably going to take a while to figure it out. It’s a project that took us two, two and a half years and is incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute,” he said. “So to see this all come together tonight and see this spacecraft on its way to the moon is absolutely epic.”
Beck said the mission’s relatively low cost — NASA estimated it at $32.7 million — heralded a new era for space exploration.
“For a few tens of millions of dollars, there’s now a rocket and a spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an insane ability that has never existed before.”
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back vital information for months as the first to take a new orbit around the moon called a near-rectilinear halo orbit: an elongated egg shape with one end of the orbit passing close to the moon and the other away from it.
Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program.
Beck said the benefit of the new orbit is that it minimizes fuel consumption and allows the satellite – or a space station – to stay in constant contact with Earth.
The Electron rocket that launched on June 28 from New Zealand carried a second spacecraft called Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was transported for six days to Photon, with the spacecraft’s engines firing periodically to raise its orbit further and further from Earth.
A final engine burst on Monday allowed Photon to break away from Earth’s gravitational pull and send the satellite on its way. The plan now is for the 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite to far outrun the moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on November 13. The satellite will use small amounts of fuel to make some planned course corrections along the way.
Beck said they would decide in the next few days what to do with Photon, which had completed its tasks and still had some fuel left in the tank.
“There are a number of really cool missions that we can actually do with it,” Beck said.
For the mission, NASA partnered with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.