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NASA Satellite Breaks From Orbit Around Earth, Heads to Moon

In the latest step in NASA’s quest to send men back to the moon, a satellite the size of a microwave oven successfully broke away from its orbit around the Earth on Monday.

The Capstone satellite has already experienced an extraordinary trip. It was launched six days ago by the startup Rocket Lab in one of their diminutive Electron rockets from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The satellite will not reach the moon for another four months as it travels at a low energy level.

Peter Beck, the creator of Rocket Lab, told The Associated Press that it was difficult to express his excitement.

It’s probably going to take a while to sink in. It’s been a project that has taken us two, two-and-a-half years and is just incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute, he said. So to see it all come together tonight and see that spacecraft on its way to the moon, it’s just absolutely epic.

Beck claimed that the mission’s comparatively inexpensive cost—$32.7 million according to NASA—marked the start of a new age for space exploration.

For some tens of millions of dollars, there is 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 capability that’s never existed before.

The Capstone satellite will be the first to enter a new orbit around the moon known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit: a stretched-out egg shape with one end of the orbit passing close to the moon and the other far from it. If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back crucial information for months.

As part of the Artemis program, NASA eventually intends to place a space station named Gateway in the orbital route from which astronauts can descend to the moon’s surface.

The new orbit, according to Beck, has the benefit of using less fuel while maintaining constant contact between the satellite or space station and Earth.

A second spacecraft dubbed Photon was carried by the Electron rocket when it took off from New Zealand on June 28. It separated after nine minutes. The satellite was carried by Photon for six days, with frequent engine firings raising its orbit farther and farther away from Earth.

Monday’s final engine burn enabled Photon to escape the gravity of Earth and launch the satellite. The 25 kilogram (55 pound) satellite is now scheduled to far exceed the moon on November 13 before reentering the new lunar orbit. The satellite will consume very little fuel to adjust its trajectory path a few times as it travels.

Beck stated that they would decide what to do with Photon over the next few days. Photon had finished its mission and still had some gasoline in the tank.

There’s a number of really cool missions that we can actually do with it, Beck said.

With Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and manages the Capstone satellite, and California’s Rocket Lab, NASA collaborated on the project.

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