LOGAN, Utah — Rocket Lab’s launch of a NASA lunar cube satellite mission lived up to its name, serving as a capstone to the company’s efforts to develop end-to-end space systems and interplanetary missions, according to its CEO.
Delivering a keynote at the Small Satellite Conference here Aug. 8, Peter Beck said the company’s work on both small launch vehicles and spacecraft coincided with the June 28 launch of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission. moon.
Rocket Lab provided the launch on its Electron rocket, as well as the Lunar Photon launcher that performed a series of maneuvers to place the CAPSTONE on a ballistic lunar orbit.
The assignment came as Rocket Lab expanded from being a developer of a small launch vehicle to one that also developed spacecraft and components for them, in part through a series of acquisitions. “Where this all really came together was when we did the CAPSTONE mission,” he said. “We didn’t just need a rocket, we needed to build a spacecraft as well.”
The CAPSTONE mission pushed the limits of Electron’s performance. The vehicle was originally designed to place 150 kilograms in low Earth orbit, but the CAPSTONE and Lunar Photon weighed 320 kilograms at launch. “Every ounce was taken into account,” he said, including the decision not to include on-board cameras normally flown on the Electron to save mass. “We really pushed that vehicle as hard as we could.”
Rocket Lab continues to operate the Lunar Photon more than a month after it deployed CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is currently about 1.3 million kilometers from Earth, he said, and will swing back to Earth later this month.
The spacecraft still has 10-15% of its fuel left. “When it whizzes past Earth,” Beck said, “we’ll be good at doing something cool with it and seeing how far into the solar system we can take it.”
That test will support Rocket Lab’s future plans for deep space smallsat missions, including a privately funded mission to Venus and building the two spacecraft for NASA’s ESCAPADE Mars orbiter mission. “We’re using this opportunity to learn what it takes to get to Venus and other destinations,” he said.
He repeated earlier comments that the CAPSTONE mission demonstrated the feasibility of low-cost interplanetary smallsat missions. “What we intended to do with the Lunar Photon spacecraft is to really lower the barrier for interplanetary missions,” he said. “The biggest thing that came out of it was that there’s a spacecraft now that, for a few tens of millions of dollars, you can buy and go and visit an asteroid, go and visit the moon, go and visit another planet. It never existed before.”
Beck, speaking remotely from New Zealand after illness prevented him from coming to the conference in person, touched on another key Rocket Lab initiative, creating a reusable version of the Electron booster. The company attempted to capture the booster with a helicopter on a May 2 launch, but unexpected loads forced the helicopter to drop the booster seconds after tackling it.
The company has been “somewhat opportunistic” in making recovery attempts, he said, depending on the requirements of each mission. “You shouldn’t have to wait long” for the next recovery attempt, he said, but was not more specific.
He was confident that Rocket Lab will soon be able to recover and reuse the booster, given the progress made so far. “The biggest learning from the last one is that it’s going to work,” he said.