NASA’s campaign to put astronauts on the Moon for the first time since 1972 kicked off with the launch of a private satellite early this morning.
The microwave-sized Capstone spacecraft, built by Advanced Space, was launched by Rocket Lab, which went public last year. The mission’s goal is to explore a type of orbit around both the Earth and the Moon that hasn’t been visited before, and demonstrate the ability to keep track of the spacecraft’s location there without assistance from the ground. Findings from the mission will allow the US space agency and its partners to put infrastructure in space for the kind of long-term lunar exploration intended to set this new Moon campaign apart from its historic predecessor, the Apollo program.
NASA has been developing the Artemis program, which aims to create a more permanent presence on the Moon and send the first woman there, since 2019. The ultimate goal is to land two astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2026. To get there, NASA will rely on traditional approaches, like building the massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion space capsule it has worked on more than a decade. But it is increasingly turning to private companies to provide everything from space suits to the landers that will deliver people and supplies to the lunar surface.
NASA is mounting a robotic exploration campaign that will send dozens of privately operated spacecraft to the Moon to determine the most interesting places for astronauts to visit, and test important technologies to keep them safe there. The Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS) will kick off later this year when Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic launch their first landers. Using private companies to deliver science payloads should help the space agency save money, just like hiring SpaceX to fly astronauts to low-Earth orbit did.
Meanwhile, NASA is hoping that it will launch its own big rocket to the Moon later this year. The SLS recently underwent a series of ground tests and now Jim Free, the NASA executive in charge of the Artemis program, says that it may be ready to send the Orion capsule on its uncrewed maiden voyage around the Moon between Aug. 23 and Sept. 6.
If that goes according to plan, it will find Capstone waiting for it there.