NASA satellite breaks from orbit around Earth, heads to moon

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NASA satellite breaks from orbit

NASA satellite breaks from orbit:

A satellite the size of a microwave oven successfully broke free of its orbit around Earth on Monday and is headed for the moon, the latest step in NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

It has already been an unusual journey for the Capstone satellite. It was launched six days ago from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula by Rocket Lab on one of its small Electron rockets. The satellite will take another four months to reach the moon, as it navigates with minimal power.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck told The Associated Press that it was hard to put his excitement into words.

“It will probably take a while to sink in. It has been a project that has taken us two, two and a half years and it is incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute,” he said. “So to see it all come together tonight and to see that spacecraft on its way to the moon, it’s absolutely epic.”
Beck said the relatively low cost of the mission — NASA estimated it at $32.7 million — ushered in a new era for space exploration.

“For a few tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and a spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars,” Beck said. “It’s an incredible capability that has never existed before.”

If the rest of the mission is successful, the Capstone satellite will send back vital information for months as the first to take a new orbit around the moon called a near-rectilinear halo orbit: a stretched-out egg shape with one end of the orbit passing close to the moon and the other away from it.

NASA eventually plans to put a space station called the Gateway in the orbital path, from which astronauts can descend to the moon’s surface as part of its Artemis program.

Beck said the advantage of the new orbit is that it minimize fuel use and allows the satellite, or a space station, to stay in constant contact with Earth.

The Electron rocket that launched on June 28 from New Zealand was carrying a second spacecraft called Photon, which separated after nine minutes. The satellite was carried for six days on Photon, with the spacecraft’s engines firing periodically to raise its orbit farther and farther from Earth.

A final engine explosion on Monday allowed Photon to break Earth’s gravitational pull and send the satellite on its way. The plan now is for the 25-kilogram (55-pound) satellite to pass the moon before falling back into the new lunar orbit on November 13. The satellite will use small amounts of fuel to make some planned trajectory corrections along the way.

Beck said they would decide in the next few days what to do with Photon, which had completed its tasks and still had some fuel in the tank.

“There’s a really cool set of missions that we can do with him,” Beck said.

For the mission, NASA partnered with two commercial companies: California-based Rocket Lab and Colorado-based Advanced Space, which owns and operates the Capstone satellite.

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