Feb. 14 (UPI) -- NASA announced Friday it selected Rocket Lab of Huntington Beach, Calif., to launch a small satellite, or CubeSat, that will orbit the moon to help prepare for lunar missions.
Rocket Lab is a new space company known mostly for launching small satellites from New Zealand, but it has a new launchpad in Virginia. The mission, called Capstone, is set to launch from the Virginia location in early 2021.
NASA plans to have the CubeSat enter the same orbit around the moon as the planned Lunar Gateway space station. The Capstone spacecraft will allow NASA to study the planned orbit for Gateway.
"In the same way we opened access to low Earth orbit for small satellites, we're proud to be bringing the Moon within reach to enable research and exploration," Rocket Lab founder and Chief Executive Officer Peter Beck said in an announcement.
The 55-pound Capstone CubeSat will sit atop an Electron rocket launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
After launch, the company's Photon platform will carry the spacecraft on a three-month journey to the moon, where its own propulsion system will guide it into an elliptical orbit over the moon's poles.
NASA said the fixed-price launch contract is valued at $9.95 million. In September, NASA awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colo., to develop and operate the CubeSat.