Rocket lab launches CAPSTONE mission for NASA

A Small CubeSat to test missions in support of the Artemis and Lunar Gateway project

An image of the CAPSTONE, launching aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab (NASDAQ: RKLB) on June 28, 2022 at 09:55 UTC (05:55 EDT) launched the 24.94 kg CubeSat CAPSTONE aboard an Electron rocket from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. Upon launch, the lunar Photon has completed its first scheduled burn, raising the orbit to 1040km x 170km. The firing of the engine will allow the CubeSat to escape the influence of Earth's gravity and head for the Moon. CAPSTONE will then use its own propulsion system to enter a cislunar orbit, an orbital area near and around the Moon.

“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.”

"CAPSTONE is an example of how working with commercial partners is key for NASA's ambitious plans to explore the Moon and beyond," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate. "We're thrilled with a successful start to the mission and looking forward to what CAPSTONE will do once it arrives at the Moon."

"Delivering the spacecraft for the 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," said Bradley Cheetham, principal investigator for CAPSTONE and chief executive officer of Advanced Space, which owns and operates CAPSTONE on behalf of NASA. “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!"


A microwave oven–sized CubeSat weighing just 25 kilograms will serve as the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit as part of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE).

As a pathfinder for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce the risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit.


During its mission, CAPSTONE will provide data about operating in an NRHO and showcase key technologies. The mission's Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, developed by Advanced Space with support from NASA's Small Business Innovation Research program, is a spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and communications system that will work with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to determine the distance between the two lunar orbiting spacecraft. This technology could allow future spacecraft to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth. CAPSTONE also carries a new precision one-way ranging capability built into its radio that could reduce the amount of ground network time needed for in-space operations.


In addition to New Zealand hosting CAPSTONE's launch, New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment and a University of Canterbury-led team are collaborating with NASA on a research effort to track Moon-orbiting spacecraft. New Zealand helped develop the Artemis Accords – which establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among nations participating in NASA’s 21st century lunar exploration plans. In May 2021, New Zealand was the 11th country to sign the Artemis Accords.

The orbit, formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), is significantly elongated. Its location at a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon, offers stability for long-term missions like Gateway and requires minimal energy to maintain.

CAPSTONE’s orbit also establishes a location that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond.

The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1620 km (1,000 miles) of one lunar pole on its near pass and 70,000 km (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 than other circular orbits.

CAPSTONE is expected to orbit this area around the Moon for at least six months to understand the characteristics of the orbit. Specifically, it will validate the propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models and gain operational experience, reducing logistical uncertainties.

It will also demonstrate innovative navigation solutions, including spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and one-way ranging capabilities with Earth ground stations. For future lunar mission communications needs, the NRHO provides the advantage of an unobstructed view of Earth in addition to coverage of the lunar South Pole.



Rocket lab's Photon Spacecraft

Photon's Hydrazine thruster

The Electron rocket launched the mission carrying the CAPSTONE spacecraft integrated into its Lunar Photon upper stage/space tug. For the mission, Lunar Photon will serve as an upper stage to take CAPSTONE on a highly efficient ballistic lunar transfer trajectory designed by Advanced Space of Colorado. About seven days after launch, after a series of orbit lift maneuvers and the final translunar injection burn, Photon will release CAPSTONE. Upon entry into deep space, with low energy transfer, the spacecraft will insert into the "near straight" halo orbit. At the same time, the Lunar Photon will continue in a separate orbit for its safe neutralization.

The combination of the Electron rocket and the Photon upper stage/tug is believed to be ideal for launching GPS and lunar-orbit communications relay cubesats required for both manned and cargo missions to the Moon.

“Among other systems, we are testing a radio that we will use to communicate with Photon at the start of the mission when it is in low Earth orbit and later when it is about 300,000 km from Earth on its way to the Moon,” Rocketlab said on twitter. . "We are also testing a guidance, navigation and control system built by Rocket Lab that will perform autonomous maneuvers that are coordinated and commanded from the system's brain, a flight computer built by Rocket Lab."


“NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) is pleased to provide a low-cost launch service for CAPSTONE and to work with Rocket Lab on this inaugural NASA launch from its new Mid-Atlantic launch site. Regional Spaceport in Virginia,” said Ana Rivera., LSP Program Integration Manager for CAPSTONE at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. LSP will manage the launch service.


“This mission is all about quickly and more affordable demonstration of new capabilities, and we are partnering with small companies to do so,” said Christopher Baker, executive of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program at the agency's Washington headquarters. “This is true from a perspective of CAPSTONE’s development schedule, operational objectives, navigation demonstration, and its quickly acquired commercial launch aboard a small rocket.”

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the seven-day cislunar orbit that we also target for the Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters. “Not only are we relying on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”


The fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September 2020, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, to develop and operate the CubeSat. After a final design review, Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. from Irvine, California, began building and testing the spacecraft.


CAPSTONE is managed by NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology program within the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate. Advanced Exploration Systems within NASA's Exploration and Human Operations Mission Directorate support launch and mission operations.


Journey to the Unique Lunar Orbit

LAUNCH, DEPLOYMENT, and Final ORBIT INSERTION

All times are approximate


HR/MIN/SEC EVENT

00:00:00 Lift-off

00:02:41 Main engines cut-off

00:02:46 Stage 1 and Stage 2 separation

00:02:51 Stage 2 ignition

00:03:18 Fairing jettison

00:04:45 Stage 1 apogee

00:06:36 Battery A jettison

00:06:36 Battery B jettison

00:09:01 Stage 2 cut-off

00:09:05 Stage 2 - Photon Separation

~00:10:00 Photon’s HyperCurie engine ignites

~ 00:50:00 Second HyperCurie burn to raise orbit

HyperCurie engine will perform apogee raising burns around every 24 hours for five days, before a final burn on the sixth day to set CAPSTONE on a trans lunar injection, Photon will reach 24,500 mph (39,500 km/h) enabling it to escape low-Earth orbit and set CAPSTONE

on a course for the Moon.

Within 20 minutes of the final burn, Photon will release CAPSTONE into space for the first leg of the CubeSat’s solo flight. CAPSTONE’s journey to NRHO is expected to take around four months from this point. CAPSTONE’s low-energy cruise will be punctuated by a series of planned trajectory correction maneuvers. At critical junctures, CAPSTONE’s team at Advanced Space’s mission operations center will command the spacecraft to fire its

thrusters to adjust course. CAPSTONE will use a hydrazine propulsion system for most of its three to four month trip to the Moon. This line of the propulsion system, developed by Stellar Exploration Inc. of San Luis Obispo, Calif., is a developed, flight-proven system designed for use on CubeSat

The CubeSat will rack up serious mileage hurtling through deep space on its traverse from Earth to the Moon. Assisted by the Sun’s gravity, of 810,000 miles (1.3 million km) from Earth – more than three times the distance between the Earth and the Moon – before being pulled back towards the Earth-Moon system.

Once successfully inserted into the orbit, CAPSTONE is expected to remain there for at least six months, allowing NASA to study the orbit dynamics.

This sinuous track – called a ballistic lunar transfer, or BLT – follows dynamic gravitational contours in deep space. CAPSTONE’s team will calculate the BLT trajectory based on the ever-changing positions of Earth, the Moon, and the Sun.


Expending little energy, CAPSTONE will cruise along these contours punctuated by a series of planned trajectory correction maneuvers. At critical junctures, CAPSTONE’s team at Advanced Space’s mission operations center will command the spacecraft to fire its thrusters to adjust course. Terran Orbital Corporation in Irvine, California, designed and built CAPSTONE and developed novel technology that allows the spacecraft to execute maneuvers while maintaining control of the spacecraft on thrusters only.


When CAPSTONE catches up to the Moon, its approach will be perfectly aligned for NRHO insertion, the crux of its route. While going 6115.5 km/h (3,800 mph), it will perform its delicate, precisely timed propulsive maneuver to enter orbit.