Rocket Lab Launches NASA’s CAPSTONE Mission to the Moon

An image of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, launching aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Credits: Rocket Lab

A microwave oven–sized cubesat launched to space today from New Zealand by commercial company Rocket Lab and their Electron rocket. The small satellite will conduct tests to make sure the unique lunar orbit for NASA’s future Lunar Gateway is actually stable.  

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE, mission launched at 5:55 a.m. EDT (09:55 UTC) on Tuesday June 28 from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand. The Electron has now flown 27 times with 24 successes and 3 failures.

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China has a new Human Lunar Space Program, With Plans for Landers, Orbiters, Rovers, and a Lunar Base

The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has advanced considerably since the turn of the century, boasting new launch vehicles, robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, and a modular space station in orbit (Tiangong). According to various sources, they plan to advance even further in the coming years and decades. Given the tight-lipped nature of the Chinese government and its agencies, much of what we periodically hear is based on snippets of information, gossip, and speculation.

However, in a recent interview with the state-owned CCTV new network, chief designer Huang Zhen confirmed that China’s space agency has established the Crewed Lunar Program Office. This program will consist of additional robotic missions to explore the Moon, followed by crewed missions and the creation of a base camp. Zhen also confirmed that he and his team at the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST) are currently developing the key technologies that will make this happen.

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Court Turns Down Blue Origin’s Attempt to Prevent SpaceX’s Lander Contract

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX

For months, the commercial space sector has waited for a pivotal case to be resolved. This was none other than the legal action filed by Blue Origin in response to NASA selecting SpaceX to execute the Human Landing System (HLS) contract worth $2.9 billion. This system is a vital piece of the Artemis Program mission architecture, which will be used in the coming years to transport crew and cargo to the lunar surface.

In a recently-announced decision, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims officially shot Blue Origin’s protest down. This puts an end to nearly seven months of legal proceedings and gridlock following SpaceX’s selection back in April. While this means that SpaceX can get back to developing their concept – the Starship HLS – in preparation for the Artemis III missions, it is unclear if that mission will happen on schedule.

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China and Russia Announce their Future Plans for the Moon, Including a Human Base

Credit: NASA

In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.

However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.

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Conceptual Design for a Lunar Habitat

Between now and the end of this decade, multiple space agencies plan to send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But whereas Apollo was a “footprints and flags” affair, the current proposals for lunar exploration call for the creation of infrastructure that allow for a sustained human presence there. In addition to NASA’s Artemis Program, the ESA is also working on a plan to create an “International Moon Village.”

For years, the ESA has released teasers as to what this “successor to the International Space Station” (ISS) might look like, the latest of which is on display at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. As part of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) showcased their design (with technical support from the ESA) for a semi-inflatable lunar habitat that could facilitate long-term lunar settlement.

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NASA Picks SpaceX to Land Astronauts on the Moon!

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX

As part of the Artemis program, NASA is gearing up to send the “first woman and next man” to the Moon by 2024. Central to this is the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, and the Orion spacecraft. But after these elements transport astronauts to Lunar orbit, they will need a lander to take them to and from the surface.

For this reason, NASA contracted a number of commercial partners to develop a Human Landing System (HLS). After much consideration, NASA announced on Friday, April 16th, that they had selected SpaceX to continue developing their concept for a lunar lander. When American astronauts return to the Moon for the first time in fifty-two years, it will be a modified version of the Starship that will bring them there.

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Lunar Gateway Will Maintain its Orbit With a 6 kW ion Engine

An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon. Credits: NASA

When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program, they will be taking the long view. Rather than being another “footprints and flags” program, the goal is to create a lasting infrastructure that will ensure a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” A major element in this plan is the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that astronauts will use to venture to and from the surface.

The first step in establishing the Gateway is the deployment of two critical modules – the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) and the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). According to a recent update, NASA (along with Maxar Technologies and Busek Co.) recently completed a hot-fire test of the PPE propulsion subsystem – the first of many that will ensure that the PPE and HALO will be ready for launch by 2024.

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A 1-Stage, Fully Reusable Lunar Lander Makes the Most Sense for Returning Humans to the Moon

Credit: NASA

When astronauts return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, they will be relying on a number of mission elements to get them there and back safely. This includes the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that will launch a crew of four and carry them to the Moon. But until recently, the question of how they will get to and from the surface remained unresolved, as there were a few options.

To determine which would be best in terms of performance and cost, researchers from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reviewed several dozen proposals. In the end, they determined that a one-stage reusable lunar lander that could transport astronauts to and from the orbiting Lunar Gateway was the best option.

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NASA has Decided to Start Building the Lunar Gateway Using the Falcon Heavy

An illustration of the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost in orbit around the Moon. Credits: NASA

In October of 2024, NASA will send “the first woman and the next man” to the Moon as part of the Artemis Program. This will be the first crewed mission to the lunar surface, and the first mission beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), since the closing of the Apollo Era in 1972. Beyond that, NASA plans to establish infrastructure on and around the Moon that will allow for “sustained lunar exploration and development.”

A key aspect of this is the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting habitat that will allow astronauts to make regular trips to and from the lunar surface. After much consideration, NASA recently announced that they have selected SpaceX to launch the foundational elements of the Gateway – the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) – by May of 2024 (at the earliest).

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