29 Jun 2022

Smaller rockets will make it possible to do more science - Rocket Lab

10:28 am on 29 June 2022

Rocket Lab says there is still much to learn from the Moon 50 years after humans last stepped foot on it.

Rocket Lab Capstone mission

Rocket Lab's Capstone mission Photo: YouTube / Rocket Lab

The company launched Nasa's Capstone micro-satellite spacecraft from the Māhia Peninsula in Hawke's Bay at 9.55pm last night in what is the first step in Nasa's mission to send humans back to the moon.

Rocket Lab director of communications Morgan Bailey said the launch went flawlessly.

The mission had been two years in the making and was the most complex they had carried out to date, she said.

The track it will take for orbiting the moon has never been flown before.

Bailey said the Moon had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and we have not been back there in 53 years.

"A lot of people ask well why go back to the Moon, haven't we been there already? But we have so much more still to learn about the Moon."

Bailey said they were hoping to use the Moon as a base to explore further into the solar system and beyond.

"But in order to do that we're going to have to relearn about how to go back to the Moon, and so Capstone, the spacecraft that we launched last night, is going to test a ... very unique kind of orbit around the Moon, one that's never been flown before."

"It's the same orbit that Nasa hopes to use with Gateway which is a Moon orbiting outpost that astronauts will travel to and then descend down to the lunar surface to do science."

Capstone cost less than US$10 million which was a very inexpensive mission as far as interplanetary launches go, Bailey said.

"When you put that into perspective against lunar missions in days gone by that took decades and were billions of dollars, you can see how it starts to be possible to do much more science with much smaller rockets."

Systems had been developed to get the spacecraft from Earth to the Moon using less fuel which involved doing it more slowly, Bailey said.

"Photon attached to the Capstone spacecraft does lots and lots of orbits of Earth and every time it does an orbit of Earth it gets a little bit faster to try and push it further and further away from Earth."

It has a small engine which gets it further away from Earth every time it fires, she said.

About six days after the launch something called a trans-lunar injection will take place, she said.

"So a final burn of that engine which will then set Capstone off on a very far distant course."

At that point Capstone will be travelling about 40,000 km/h and the spacecraft overshoots the Moon, but the Sun's and the Moon's gravity are used to bring it back within lunar orbit, Bailey said.

Bailey said there was an overwhelming feeling of joy, excitement and relief and amongst Rocket Lab staff this morning because Capstone was by far the most complex mission they had undertaken.

"Huge team effort, so much work, so much new technology, so everyone quite literally is over the Moon."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs