In between the gravities of the Earth and the moon lies a halo-shaped orbit that will be used by NASA's soon-to-come Gateway, a lunar rest stop of sorts for astronauts when they head back to the moon as part of the agency's Artemis missions. The agency has now launched a microwave oven-sized mini-satellite into space to test out that orbit's stability, a mission officially called the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, reports CNN. The 55-pound spacecraft, known as a CubeSat, was sent on its three-month journey to the orbit point on Tuesday morning from New Zealand on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket.
From there, it will stay in orbit for another six months (and possibly longer) to gather useful information, including communications capabilities with Earth, for the eventual orbiting of the Gateway outpost, which NASA hopes to have up and running in some capacity by the end of 2024, per Space.com. Per the New York Times, the near-rectilinear halo orbit that CAPSTONE is being sent to is balanced by the gravities of both Earth and moon, meaning the spacecraft will need less propulsion during orbiting. The orbit's shape also means the satellite will never fly behind the moon, which would cause it to temporarily lose communications with Earth. The CAPSTONE spacecraft will be the first to test-drive the orbit.
CubeSat missions are relatively low-cost, low-risk operations that can serve as guides for larger missions down the road. This particular mission, for example, cost less than $30 million to pull together. "On a flight test, you learn as much, if not more, from failure than you do from success," Christopher Baker of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate tells CNN. "We can afford to take more risk, knowing that there's a probability of failure, but that we can accept that failure in order to move into advanced capabilities." Although NASA financed the project, the mission is actually owned and operated by a private Colorado-based company called Advanced Space. (Read more lunar exploration stories.)