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NASA, Rocket Lab launch orbiter to help pave way for astronauts' return to moon

NASA, Rocket Lab launch orbiter to help pave way for astronauts' return to moon
NASA and Rocket Lab launch an unmanned orbiter to the moon from Mahia, New Zealand, on Tuesday. The CubeSat serves as a robotic probe that will go around the moon and back as the first spacecraft to test a unique, elliptical lunar orbit for the CAPSTONE mission. Photo courtesy of NASA/Rocket Lab

June 28 (UPI) -- NASA's CAPSTONE mission spacecraft lifted off into space Tuesday morning on a mission to orbit the moon, moving scientists closer to returning astronauts.

The unmanned lunar orbiter took off on top of a Rocket Lab booster from New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. The mission was originally set for Monday but was delayed to make a final systems check.

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The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment will guide the satellite into an elongated orbit with the moon, coming as close as 1,000 miles to its north pole.

The spacecraft, a 55-pound cube satellite, will remain in orbit around the moon for the next six months to study dynamics.

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"CAPSTONE is an example of how working with commercial partners is key for NASA's ambitious plans to explore the moon and beyond," Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in a statement.

"We're thrilled with a successful start to the mission and looking forward to what CAPSTONE will do once it arrives at the moon."

For now, CAPSTONE is taking the slow lane to the moon, where it will spend four months to reach its planned orbit.

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"CAPSTONE is a pathfinder in many ways, and it will demonstrate several technology capabilities during its mission timeframe while navigating a never-before-flown orbit around the moon," Elwood Agasid, project manager for CAPSTONE at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a statement.

The spacecraft will act as a pathfinder for the moon-orbiting outpost, named Gateway, that will eventually support the long-term human return to the lunar surface.

The mission is part of NASA's 21st-century moon program named for Artemis, who in Greek mythology was a twin sister of Apollo. The program aims to return humans to the moon in 2024, more than half a century since the last Apollo moon landing.

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CAPSTONE will provide data about operating in a near rectilinear halo orbit and showcase key technologies.

"This technology could allow future spacecraft to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth," NASA said in a statement. "CAPSTONE also carries a new precision one-way ranging capability built into its radio that could reduce the amount of ground network time needed for in-space operations."

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