June 26, 2022: On Sunday, NASA announced a delay of at least one day for the launch of CAPSTONE to allow more time to perform final systems checks. The article has been updated.
In the coming years, NASA will be busy at the moon.
A giant rocket will loft a capsule with no astronauts aboard around the moon and back, perhaps before the end of summer. A parade of robotic landers will drop off experiments on the moon to collect reams of scientific data, especially about water ice locked up in the polar regions. A few years from now, astronauts are to return there, more than half a century since the last Apollo moon landing.
Those are all part of NASA’s 21st-century moon program named for Artemis, who in Greek mythology was the twin sister of Apollo.
As soon as this week, a spacecraft named CAPSTONE is to launch as the first piece of Artemis to head to the moon. Compared to what is to follow, it is modest in size and scope.
There won’t be any astronauts aboard CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is too tiny, about as big as a microwave oven. This robotic probe won’t even land on the moon.
But it is in many ways unlike any previous mission to the moon. It could serve as a template for public-private partnerships that NASA could undertake in the future to get a better bang for its buck on interplanetary voyages.
“NASA has gone to the moon before, but I’m not sure it’s ever been put together like this,” said Bradley Cheetham, chief executive and president of Advanced Space, the company that is managing the mission for NASA.
The launch was scheduled for Monday, but on Sunday, the launch was delayed by at least one day to give Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company that is providing CAPSTONE’s ride to orbit, more time to perform final system checks.
“Teams are evaluating weather and other factors to determine the date of the next launch attempt,” NASA said in a blog posting. “The next launch opportunity within the current period is on June 28.”
The full name of the mission is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. It will act as a scout for the lunar orbit where a crewed space station will eventually be built as part of Artemis. That outpost, named Gateway, will serve as a way station where future crews will stop before continuing on to the lunar surface.
CAPSTONE is unusual for NASA in several ways. For one, it is sitting on a launchpad not in Florida but in New Zealand. Second, NASA did not design or build CAPSTONE, nor will it operate it. The agency does not even own it. CAPSTONE belongs to Advanced Space, a 45-employee company on the outskirts of Denver.
The spacecraft is taking a slow, but efficient trajectory to the moon. There are daily launch opportunities through July 27. If the spacecraft gets off the ground by then, regardless of which day it launches, it will get to lunar orbit on the same day: Nov. 13.
The CAPSTONE mission continues efforts by NASA to collaborate in new ways with private companies in hopes of gaining additional capabilities at lower cost more quickly.
“It’s another way for NASA to find out what it needs to find out and get the cost down,” said Bill Nelson,…
Read More News: NASA’s Return to the Moon Starts With Launching a 55-Pound Cube