NASA’s smallsat mission to assess the orbit that would be utilized by the lunar Gateway would launch from New Zealand, rather than Virginia, as scheduled. Rocket Lab announced on August 6 that the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) flight would be launched in the fourth quarter on an Electron rocket from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Rocket Lab planned to launch CAPSTONE from the Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia, when it received the NASA contract in February 2020.
Rocket Lab did not explain the shift in launch sites in their statement. “Flexible isn’t a term that comes to mind when thinking of lunar missions, but having two launch complexes allows us the flexibility to choose the optimal site for our mission objectives and schedule,” stated Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO.
CAPSTONE was the second Rocket Lab flight to be moved from Virginia to New Zealand in recent weeks. Monolith, a smallsat created by the Air Force Research Laboratory, was launched into orbit by the most recent Electron launch on July 26. Monolith was supposed to be the first Electron mission to launch from Virginia. The launch of Monolith was postponed at the time due to ongoing work by NASA to certify the software for the rocket’s autonomous flight termination mechanism. In July, a NASA spokeswoman stated that the agency expected the unit to be certified by year-end.
CAPSTONE, a 25-kilogram smallsat built by Advanced Space in Colorado and Tyvak, a Terran Orbital Company in California, will be joined to a Photon spaceship by the Electron. CAPSTONE will be launched on a lunar trajectory by Photon’s HyperCurie engine and will separate roughly seven days following launch. CAPSTONE will next maneuver into the near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon. The very same orbit will be utilized by the lunar Gateway, using its hydrazine propulsion system. NASA will utilize CAPSTONE to test the orbit’s stability and validate propulsion models required to keep the orbit stable. CAPSTONE will also put a navigation system for spaceship to spacecraft to the test.
The development of CAPSTONE is still on track. Advanced Space announced in a statement on Aug. 2 that the second in a set of operations readiness tests, which are real-time simulations of the mission activities, had been completed. “This rigorous readiness test demonstrates our team’s ability to focus on mission execution in tough environments,” stated Brad Cheetham, Advanced Space’s CEO, in a statement. “This mission clearly demonstrates the value of NASA-industry collaboration.”