NASA awarded CAPSTONE CubeSat contract to Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab will provide launch services for the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat.

NASA has chosen Rocket Lab to launch its lunar CubeSat mission in early 2021. According to a press release by NASA, the CAPSTONE CubeSat mission is contracted against a fixed price of $9.95 million and will facilitate NASA’s planned orbiting outpost Lunar Gateway and, in future, Artemis.

Rocket Lab, based in Huntington Beach, California, will now take charge of the CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System technology Operations and Navigation Experiment), a 25kg 12U CubeSat, and deliver it to space via two-stage Electron rocket from Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) site at Wallops Island in Virginia. 

After the launch, Rocket Lab’s Photon platform will then boost to deliver CAPSTONE to a trans-lunar injection, after parting from Electron. The CubeSat will then break free of Earth’s gravity towards the Moon. 

CAPSTONE will further use its own propulsion system to enter a cislunar orbit, which is the orbital area near and around the Moon. The mission is targeted for launch in early next year and will be the second lunar mission to launch from Virginia.

CAPSTONE will revolve around the moon in a halo orbit demonstrating the orbit’s stability for astronauts living quarters, a research lab, and will also provide more easy access to spacecraft that NASA planned to explore Moon with its important Artemis Lunar Exploration Program. NASA aims to take the astronauts to Moon by 2024 to establish a firm human presence on the Moon. 


The Chief Executive Officer of Rocket Lab, Peter Beck, brings attention to the flexibility of the spacecraft launch as a secondary payload. He said that “As a dedicated mission on Electron, we’re able to provide NASA with complete control over every aspect of launch and mission design for CAPSTONE, something typically only available to much larger spacecraft on larger launch vehicles.”

Director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA, Marshall Smith, said in a statement that “CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway. We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

CAPSTONE illustration around Moon
Highly elliptical, a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon takes advantage of a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon and creates a stability that is ideal for long-term missions like Gateway. Image: Advanced Space

The spacecraft, CAPSTONE, is said to be the first satellite that will operate in the halo orbit set for CubeSat rotation around the Moon with the distance between 1000 miles to 43,500 miles from the lunar surface. CAPSTONE will test the new navigation capabilities that will reduce every uncertainty for the Lunar Gateway. NASA and other international partners are working to ensure that astronauts have safe access to the Moon to demonstrate new science and technology needed for future exploration.

The Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Jim Reuter, said that “This is an exciting opportunity for NASA to aggressively push forward towards the Moon in partnership with several American small businesses as a vanguard to Artemis and sustained human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. This mission is highly ambitious in both cost and schedule – and taking that deliberate risk is part of the objective of this mission – alongside the rapid technological advancement in cislunar navigation and the opportunity to verify orbital trajectory assumptions and retire unknowns for future missions.”

Featured image: Rocket Lab

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