WELLINGTON, New Zealand — NASA plans to experiment with a new lunar orbit that it hopes to use in the coming years to land astronauts on the lunar surface again.
So it’s sending a test satellite from New Zealand, with a launch scheduled for late Tuesday. If successful, the Capstone CubeSat satellite — only about the size of a microwave oven — will be the first to chart the new path around the moon, sending back vital information for at least six months.
Technically, the new orbit is called an almost rectilinear halo orbit. It is an elongated egg shape, with one end running close to the moon and the other far away.
Imagine you are pulling a rubber band from your thumb back. Your thumb would represent the moon, and the rubber band the flight path.
“There will be balance. Balance. Balance,” NASA wrote on its website. “This groundbreaking CubeSat will practically be able to sit back and rest on a gravity-sweet spot in space — where the gravity of the Earth and the Moon interact to create an almost stable job. †
Ultimately, NASA plans to place a space station called Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the moon’s surface as part of the Artemis program.
For the satellite mission, NASA is working with two commercial companies. The California-based Rocket Lab will launch the rocket carrying the satellite, which in turn is owned and operated by Colorado-based Advanced Space.
The mission came about relatively quickly and cheaply for NASA, with a total mission cost of $32.7 million.
Putting the 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite into orbit will take more than four months and will happen in three phases.
First, Rocket Lab’s tiny Electron rocket will be launched from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. After just nine minutes, the second phase, called Photon, will separate and go into orbit. For five days, Photon’s engines will fire periodically to raise its orbit farther and farther from Earth.
Six days after launch, Photon’s engines will fire for the last time, allowing it to escape Earth’s orbit and go to the moon.
Photon will then release the satellite, which has its own small propulsion system but won’t use much energy as it sails to the moon in four months, with a few planned course corrections along the way.
Rocket Lab spokesman Morgan Bailey said it was the most ambitious and complex mission it has undertaken to date and comes after more than two years of work with NASA and Advanced Space. She said it is the first time Rocket Lab has tested its HyperCurie engine that will be used to power Photon.
“There are certainly a lot of tough issues to solve along the way, but we ticked them off one by one and made it to launch day,” Bailey said.
Bailey said one of the benefits of the orbit is that, in theory, a space station should be able to maintain continuous communication with Earth because it will prevent it from being eclipsed by the moon.