After nearly five months of space travel, the CAPSTONE satellite launched by Long Beach-based Rocket Lab in June reached lunar orbit on Sunday, just days before NASA’s successful Artemis I mission launch early Wednesday morning.
CAPSTONE is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which is paving the way for astronauts to return to the moon and, ultimately, journey to Mars.
Since Sunday, CAPSTONE has been performing “clean-up” maneuvers to complete insertion into its unique target orbit. The satellite is testing an elongated lunar orbit, formally known as near-rectilinear halo orbit, for Gateway, a moon-orbiting space station.
CAPSTONE blasted off aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket on June 28. After reaching low Earth orbit, Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon spacecraft carried out a series of maneuvers over six days, circling the planet 37 times, before sending CAPSTONE on its way.
“After delivering a successful launch and deployment for CAPSTONE almost five months ago, we’ve watched with bated breath as [it] drew closer to lunar orbit,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We’re cheering CAPSTONE on as it now transitions into the next phase of operations in lunar orbit.”
Rocket Lab’s role in the mission was completed once CAPSTONE was released on July 4, with Advanced Space and Terran Orbital managing operations of the satellite for the remainder of its journey.
NASA reported that on July 5 it lost contact with the probe due to an improperly formatted command and subsequent software issue. It took a day and half to re-establish communications and execute course-correcting maneuvers.
CAPSTONE again faced trouble when it suffered a glitch during a planned trajectory-correction maneuver on Sept. 8. A valve-related issue caused the satellite to tumble beyond the capacity of onboard systems to recover. It took team members almost a full month to stop the spin and return the spacecraft to normal operations.
The satellite traveled more than 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, passing the moon before looping back to be captured by its gravity.
Just over 48 hours after NASA celebrated CAPSTONE’s lunar arrival, the agency rejoiced at the successful launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the world, with the Orion spacecraft in tow.
The launch, which had been scrubbed twice and delayed a third time due to Hurricane Ian, is the first leg of a mission that is expected to see Orion travel 40,000 miles beyond the moon and return to Earth in about 25.5 days, according to NASA. Dubbed Artemis I, the mission is a precursor to the agency’s moon and Mars exploration.
The flight is a test ahead of the crewed Artemis II mission.
“What an incredible sight to see NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft launch together for the first time,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This uncrewed flight test will push Orion to the limits in the rigors of deep space, helping us prepare for human exploration on the Moon and, ultimately, Mars.”
After reaching an initial orbit, Orion deployed solar arrays and engineers began checks of the onboard systems, according to NASA. After about one and a half hours, the rocket’s upper stage successfully fired for 18 minutes, propelling Orion out of Earth’s orbit toward the moon.
Orion has since separated from its upper stage, NASA announced.
Two Long Beach companies, Rubbercraft and NuSpace, contributed parts for Wednesday’s mission, according to NASA’s website. Rubbercraft, which produces seals and gaskets for aerospace, aviation, defense and medical industries, provided parts for the Orion. NuSpace, meanwhile, which specializes in propellent systems and tanks, contributed to the SLS.
The first goal of the Artemis program is to return people to the surface of the moon, including the first woman and person of color, by 2024. Using humans and robots, NASA plans to explore new locations starting with the lunar south pole.
After testing technologies and demonstrating capabilities on and around the moon, the agency hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars.