4 mins read 20 Jun 2022

NASA partners with Rocket Lab for Multiple Missions

NASA has partnered with New Zealand company Rocket Lab for two upcoming missions that are headed to the Moon and beyond.

Artist's impression of the CAPSTONE satellite. Credits: Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission will launch from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula later this year. 

Since arriving at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in May, CAPSTONE was successfully fueled and integrated with the Lunar Photon upper stage by teams from Rocket Lab, Terran Orbital, and Stellar Exploration. Photon is both the upper stage of the rocket and a satellite. The Photon upper stage can be used for Low Earth Orbit, as well as for more complex mission orbits such as the one CAPSTONE will complete around the Moon.  

The Photon upper stage. Credits: Rocket Lab.

CAPSTONE is designed to orbit the moon in an elongated elliptical orbit. The orbit sits in a precise balance point between the Earth and the Moon’s gravities, making it stable and requiring minimal energy to maintain. CAPSTONE will perform this orbit for at least six months to understand this unusual orbit shape better and validate propulsion and power requirements as modelled by NASA. It will also be testing spacecraft-to-spacecraft communication abilities and communication with Earth. CAPSTONE’s unique orbit will also provide an unobstructed view of Earth and the lunar South Pole.  

The CAPSTONE orbit. Credits: Rocket Lab.

The CAPSTONE mission was initially set to be launched between May 3 and May 15, which was then bumped to June 13. However, NASA Ames announced that flight software is being updated so they would not launch on June 13. The latest launch date is June 25th according to Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, which is being used to launch CAPSTONE, is the only reusable small orbital-class rocket on the global market, demonstrated earlier this year with the capture of the first stage of Electron by a modified Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. This allows Rocket Lab to be more sustainable, as well as enabling higher launch frequency without expanding production and lowering launch costs.

CAPSTONE is important for validating the Gateway Mission which will serve as an outpost orbiting the Moon allowing for a long-term human return to the lunar surface. Gateway is an international mission comprised of a number of modules and parts, including a Human Landing System (HLS), habitation and logistics outpost (HALO), an International Habitat, Gateway External Robotic System (GERS), and a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). Gateway is also critical to the Artemis program, landing humans back on the moon.

The launch schedule for CAPSTONE is highly ambitious, however, it will demonstrate key commercial capabilities. Rocket Lab as well as NASA’s other partners in this mission will be able to test cutting-edge tools for mission planning and operations both paving the way and expanding opportunities for small and more affordable missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.  

GLIDE Mission

Making the Z4J solar cells. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab has also been selected by Ball Aerospace to build the solar array panel on NASA’s GLIDE spacecraft. 

GLIDE stands for Global Lyman-Alpha Imager of Dynamic Exosphere, and this mission is planned to launch in 2025. GLIDE is a heliophysics mission that will study variability in Earth’s atmosphere.  

The GLIDE spacecraft will launch with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Space Weather Follow On-Lagrange 1 (SWFO-L1). SWFO-L1 is also a heliophysics mission that will collect information about the solar wind and corona of the sun so the NOAA can monitor and better forecast solar storms.

The solar array panel will use Rocket Lab’s high-efficiency, radiation-hardened, quadruple-junction Z4J solar cells which are being manufactured in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rocket Lab has provided power spacecraft before, including the Parker Solar Probe which was the first mission to “touch” the sun.

“Rocket Lab has become the ‘go-to’ provider of space solar power and space systems products throughout the space industry, including for ambitious heliophysics missions like GLIDE,” said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. 

“I am grateful to our partners at Ball Aerospace for selecting Rocket Lab and excited to be working with them to support NASA’s Heliophysics missions to deliver advanced science.”