A small NASA satellite broke free from its orbit around Earth Monday and is now headed toward the moon, signaling a step in the right direction for the space program's efforts to put astronauts on the moon once again.
The Capstone satellite, which is roughly the size of microwave, launched from Earth about a week ago from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand by the company Rocket Lab in one of their small Electron rockets. The satellite is not expected to reach the moon for another four months, given that it uses minimal energy.
"It's probably going to take a while to sink in. It's been a project that has taken us two, two-and-a-half years and is just incredibly, incredibly difficult to execute," Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck said. "So to see it all come together tonight and see that spacecraft on its way to the moon, it's just absolutely epic."
Beck explained that the relatively low cost of the satellite's journey illustrates the potential of space exploration. NASA said the cost of the mission was $32.7 million.
"For some tens of millions of dollars, there is now a rocket and a spacecraft that can take you to the moon, to asteroids, to Venus, to Mars," he said. "It’s an insane capability that’s never existed before."
The Capstone is supposed to send back important information for months as the first satellite to go on a new orbit around the moon called a near-rectilinear halo orbit. This oval-shaped orbit extends from one end passing close to the moon to the other that is far from it.
NASA plans to eventually put a space station into the orbital path that astronauts will be able to descend to the moon from as part of the agency's Artemis program.
Beck said the new orbit proves more advantageous in that it cuts down on fuel use and allows the satellite or a space station to remain in contact with people on Earth.
The rocket was carrying a second spacecraft called Photon that had separated after nine minutes. The satellite had been carried for six days in Photon, and the spacecraft's engines fired occasionally to move its orbit farther away from Earth.
A final engine burst on Monday allowed Photon to break from Earth's gravitational pull and send the satellite on its mission. The plan now is for the satellite to overshoot the moon and then fall back into the new orbit in Nov. 13. The satellite will use a small amount of fuel to make a few planned trajectory course corrections.
Beck said a decision would be made about what to do with Photon in the next several days. This spacecraft had completed its tasks and still had some fuel left.
"There’s a number of really cool missions that we can actually do with it," Beck said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.