Rocket Lab Startup Launch has received a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency's CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate goal of placing the CAPSTONE CubeSat in a cislunar orbit (in the region between Earth and the Moon), the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway space station. The launch is scheduled for 2021.
The launch of CAPSTONE will take place at the new Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) installation at the Wallops flight facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab officially opened its launch pad there in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting this year.
The launch is significant in several ways, including the second lunar mission that is launched from Virginia's flight facilities. You will also use the Rocket Lab Photon platform, which is an internally designed and built satellite that can support a variety of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only about 55 pounds, from Earth's orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will start its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.
Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, pointing out at the time that it is designed in part to provide a longer range delivery for small satellites, even to the Moon. That is a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence in and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.
CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, acting "as a pioneer" for the lunar portal that NASA finally hopes to build and deploy.
"CAPSTONE is a quick and risk-tolerant demonstration that aims to learn about the only seven-day cislunar orbit we also target Gateway," said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news "We do not rely only on these precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties before our future missions using the same lunar orbit."
In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $ 9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month before its planned launch in 2021.