NASA hopes launch in New Zealand clears way for moon landing

New Zealand rocket launch (Rocket Lab)

NASA wants to experiment with a new orbit around the moon that it hopes to use in the coming years to once again land astronauts on the lunar surface.

So it’s sending a test satellite from New Zealand. The initial stages of the launch went as planned on Tuesday, with the rocket carrying the satellite arriving into space.

If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone CubeSat satellite – just the size of a microwave oven – will be the first to follow the new path around the moon and send vital information for at least six months.

Technically, the new orbit is called a quasi-rectilinear halo orbit. It is a stretched out egg shape with one end passing close to the moon and the other farther away from it.

Imagine stretching a rubber band around your thumb. Your thumb would represent the moon and the rubber band the flight path.

“There will be balance. Balance. Equilibrium,” NASA wrote on its website. “This path-finding CubeSat will practically be able to relax and rest in a gravitational sweet spot in space – where the force of Earth and Moon’s gravity interact to allow for a nearly stable orbit. ”

Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called the Gateway on the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the moon’s surface as part of its Artemis program.

For the satellite mission, NASA teamed up with two commercial companies. California-based Rocket Lab launched the rocket carrying the satellite, which in turn is owned and operated by Colorado-based Advanced Space.

The mission was accomplished relatively quickly and cheaply for NASA, with the total cost of the mission estimated at $32.7 million.

Getting the 25-kilogram satellite into orbit will take more than four months and will be done in three stages.

First, Rocket Lab’s tiny Electron rocket launched from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Just nine minutes later, the second stage called Photon broke apart and went into orbit around Earth. Over the next five days, Photon’s engines are programmed to fire periodically to lift its orbit farther and farther from Earth.

Six days after launch, Photon’s engines will fire one last time, allowing it to escape Earth’s orbit and head for the moon.

Photon will then release the satellite, which has its own small propulsion system but won’t use much energy as it sails toward the moon over the course of four months, with some trajectory corrections planned along the way.

“Perfect Launch of the Electron!” Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck tweeted on Tuesday. “The lunar photon is in low earth orbit.”

Rocket Lab spokesperson Morgan Bailey said it was the most ambitious and complex mission it has undertaken so far and comes after more than two years of work with NASA and Advanced Space. She said it will be the first time Rocket Lab has tested its HyperCurie engine that will be used to power Photon.

“Certainly a lot of hard-to-solve issues along the way, but we tackled them one by one and got to launch day,” Bailey said.

Bailey said one of the advantages of orbit is that, in theory, a space station should be able to maintain continuous communication with Earth because it will avoid being eclipsed by the moon.

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