WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — NASA wants to experiment with a new orbit around the moon that it hopes to use in the coming years to land astronauts on the lunar surface again.
Thus, it sends a test satellite from New Zealand. The first stages of the launch went according to plan on Tuesday evening, with the rocket carrying the satellite reaching space.
If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone CubeSat satellite – only the size of a microwave oven – will be the first to take the new path around the moon and will send back vital information for at least six month.
Technically, the new orbit is called a quasi-rectilinear halo orbit. It is an elongated egg shape with one end passing close to the moon and the other far away from it.
Imagine pulling a rubber band from your thumb. Your thumb would represent the moon and the rubber band the flight path.
“There will be a balance. Balance. Libra,” NASA wrote on its website. “This orientation CubeSat will be practically able to relax and rest in an ideal gravitational point in space – where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Moon interact to allow a nearly stable orbit.”
Eventually, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program.
For the satellite mission, NASA partnered 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 proceeded relatively quickly and inexpensively for NASA, with the total mission cost estimated at $32.7 million.
Putting the 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite into orbit will take more than four months and will be done in three stages.
First, Rocket Lab’s small Electron rocket was launched from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Just nine minutes later, the second stage called Photon separated and orbited Earth. Over the next five days, Photon’s engines should fire periodically to raise its orbit further and further 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 launch the satellite, which has its own small propulsion system but won’t use much power as it cruises to the moon for four months, with some course corrections planned along the way.
“Perfect Electron Launch!” 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 this will be the first time Rocket Lab has tested its HyperCurie engine which will be used to power Photon.
“Certainly a lot of hard-to-fix issues along the way, but we ticked them off one by one and got to launch day,” Bailey said.
Bailey said one of the benefits of orbit is that, theoretically, 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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