Next up for Rocket Lab is CAPSTONE

After problems with the rocket’s kick stage were resolved, a NASA lunar cubesat mission now is set to deploy in late May aboard a Rocket Lab Electron. The next Electron mission, according to Peter Beck, who works as the chief executive officer of Rocket Lab, would be of the CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) cubesat for the NASA Agency, during a call with media after the 2nd May deployment of the Electron rocket transporting 34 smallsats. He did not specify a launch date.

NASA had previously predicted a launch date of May 3 to 15, but the mission’s manager, NASA’s Ames Research Center, tweeted on April 29 that the launch will now take place in May. The mission teams at Rocket Lab, NASA, as well as Advanced Space, the Colorado business that owns and runs NASA’s spacecraft, are “currently reevaluating the launch period.”

NASA spokesman Sarah Frazier informed SpaceNews on May 2 that “CAPSTONE’s orbital requirements provide for launch possibilities every month.  NASA, Rocket Lab, and Advanced Space are rethinking the launch window to give launch vehicle processing more time.”

Tom Gardner,who works at Advanced Space as the program manager of CAPSTONE, said the business was now eyeing a May 27 launch window during a May 2 session at Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference event held in San Luis Obispo, California. He stated that daily instant takeoff windows are available until late June.

The newest setback, he explained, was caused by “small problems in the final test program” of Lunar Photon, the form of the Photon satellite bus that would carry CAPSTONE to the moon. He added that the issues had been resolved.

The spacecraft is expected to arrive in New Zealand by the close of the week for fuelling and assembly with the Electron launch vehicle. Gardner explained that Rocket Lab created a new structure at the launch site to fuel the spacecraft using hydrazine since none of the previous payloads flown on Electron used the energetic yet hazardous fuel.

CAPSTONE will take 4 months to enter a close-rectilinear halo orbit all around the moon, the very same orbit NASA hopes to employ for the lunar Gateway, once launched. Its initial mission will last six months, during which it will test the orbit’s stability and undertake navigation experiments using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, that will be followed by an prolonged or “improved” mission lasting up to 11 months including additional tests.

Gardner stated that the business aimed to launch the spacecraft within 18 months. “That proved rather problematic,” he remarked, citing 17 months of delays, seven of which he blamed on the pandemic. The remaining ten months are purely risk assessments on the spacecraft and launch vehicle.”

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