NASA has just launched a tiny cubesat. This is why it's such a significant step for space exploration

NASA has just launched a tiny cubesat. This is why it's such a significant step for space exploratio ...

On a months-long journey to the Moon, Rocket Lab launched NASA's tiny CAPSTONE spacecraft.

From the company's Launch Complex 1, on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand, it was launched yesterday, June 28, at 5:55 a.m. EDT (0955 GMT; 9:55 p.m. local time).

The mission will put NASA's lunar Gateway orbital outpost to the test for its stability. If everything goes according to plan, the mission will be remembered as a critical step in establishing and maintaining a permanent presence on the moon.

NASA and Rocket Lab have launched a historic lunar cubesat expedition.

The small CAPSTONE cubesat launched on NASA's supercharged Saturn V rocket is designed to launch satellites into orbit.

CAPSTONE, which is now on its way to the moon aboard Photon, will not be able to reach its intended lunar orbit until November 13.

The Photon spacecraft carrying CAPSTONE was placed into the two-stage Electron's upper stage and was separated from the upper stage roughly nine minutes after launch.

Electron is a marvellous automobile, and the team that drives it are even more amazing. Capstone was by far the largest and hardest mission we have ever undertaken, yet Electron completed the lift flawlessly, even with performance to spare. pic.twitter.com/RzgCLF0qB4

"Capstone was by far the most difficult and heaviest mission we have ever carried, but Electron completed the lift flawlessly with performance to spare," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wrote on Twitter shortly after the launch, adding that Photon was in low Earth orbit at the time.

Photon will begin its lunar journey slowly by a series of engine burns over the next five days. On the sixth day after launch, it will perform a final burn to boost its velocity to24,500 mph (39,500 kph).

As it completes its slow, energy-efficient journey to the moon, the cubesat will occasionally fire its own thrusters over the next few months. This is part of why NASA chose to keep the mission to a relatively low cost for space operations. $30 million budget.

Paving the way for NASA's lunar Gateway outpost

CAPSTONE will take it as far as 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Earth. This moon orbit has been previously untested. It is highly likely to be NASA's next lunar outpost, which will be a critical component of its journey to Mars someday.

The earth's gravitational pull means that space stations and spacecraft should not have to use much gasoline to remain in the NRHO. As a point of reference, the International Space Station orbiting Earth has to periodically reboost its orbit, something that was only carried out by Russian spacecraft until recently.

The lunar Gateway outpost at NASA will eventually serve as a stop-off point for crewed flights to the lunar surface. The US space agency recently announced it aims to send parts of the orbital station to the moon in late 2024. Russia and China are separate working on their own lunar outpost after Russia's space agency Roscosmos opted out of collaborating with NASA on its Gateway program.

CAPSTONE will spend six months in the NRHO to check its stability. Stay tuned for more information on NASA and Rocket Lab's small cubesat mission with potentially enormous implications for space exploration's future.

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