The NASA-funded launch of CAPSTONE, a tiny cubesat for the moon, delayed to June 6

Artist's illustration showing the CAPSTONE cubesat near the moon.
Artist's illustration showing the CAPSTONE spacecraft in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon. (Image credit: NASA/Advanced Space)

A little spacecraft will have to wait a bit longer for its big lunar launch.

The CAPSTONE mission, short for "Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment," will now launch no earlier than June 6, NASA announced late last week (opens in new tab).

"We will continually evaluate the date for the first target launch attempt within the launch period, which extends to June 22," agency officials wrote May 20, without providing specifics on why the launch was delayed.

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

This is the second recent delay for the mission, which was most recently targeted for May 31. The microwave-oven-sized spacecraft is scheduled to launch from New Zealand aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket with a Lunar Photon upper stage. 

Once it gets to space, CAPSTONE will settle into a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon, the same orbit that will be used by NASA's forthcoming Gateway space station. The orbit is untested, so the cubesat will aim to verify its stability.

An artist's depiction of the power and propulsion element for Gateway, the orbital base NASA plans to build to anchor human exploration of the moon.

An artist's depiction of the power and propulsion element for NASA's planned Gateway moon-orbiting space station. (Image credit: NASA)

CAPSTONE plans to swing to within 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of the lunar south pole at its closest approach. With Gateway, that should provide access for astronauts to land on the surface and explore potential zones of water ice within permanently shadowed craters, NASA officials have said.

At its most distant point from the moon, CAPSTONE will soar 43 times higher, to an altitude of 43,500 miles (70,000 km). But the orbit needs to be verified, as the moon has mascons (mass concentrations) that may perturb its stability.

Aside from testing the orbit, CAPSTONE will also assess spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation and communications systems with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the moon since 2009. CAPSTONE was originally supposed to launch in 2021, but COVID-related issues pushed back the opportunity.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace