CAPSTONE coming soon for Rocket Lab

WASHINGTON — A NASA cubesat lunar mission is now set to launch in late May on a Rocket Lab Electron after resolving issues with the rocket’s launch stage.

In a call with reporters after the May 2 launch of an Electron rocket carrying 34 small satellites, Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, said the next Electron mission will be for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) cubesat for NASA. He did not give a date for the launch.

NASA previously planned a launch between May 3 and May 15, but in a tweet from April 29, NASA’s Ames Research Center, which manages the mission, said launch was now slated for May at the earliest. “The launch window is currently being reassessed by mission teams” at NASA, Rocket Lab and Advanced Space, the Colorado company that owns and operates the spacecraft for NASA.

“CAPSTONE’s orbital requirements allow for launch opportunities every month,” NASA spokeswoman Sarah Frazier told SpaceNews on May 2. “NASA, Rocket Lab and Advanced Space are reevaluating the launch window to allow more time for launcher processing.”

During a May 2 presentation at the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Tom Gardner, CAPSTONE program manager at Advanced Space, said the company is now targeting a window that opens on May 27. may. He said instant launch windows are available daily through the end of June.

The latest slippage, he said, was due to “minor challenges in the final test program” of the Lunar Photon, the version of the Photon satellite bus configured as a jumpstart stage that will send CAPSTONE to the moon. These issues have been resolved, he added.

The spacecraft is expected to be shipped to Electron’s launch site in New Zealand at the end of the week for refueling and integration with the launch vehicle. Rocket Lab built a new building at the launch site to supply the spacecraft with hydrazine, Gardner said, because none of the payloads previously launched on Electron used the energetic but dangerous fuel.

Once launched, CAPSTONE will take four months to enter a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon, the same orbit NASA plans to use for the Lunar Gateway. Its primary mission of testing orbit stability and conducting navigational experiments with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will last six months, followed by an extended or “enhanced” mission of up to 11 months with additional testing.

Gardner said the company aims to launch the spacecraft within 18 months. “It turned out to be quite difficult,” he said, with 17 months of delays, 7 of which he said were caused by the pandemic. “The other 10 months are purely risky accomplishments on the spacecraft and on the launch vehicle.”

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