CAPSTONE launch delayed to March 2022

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The launch of a NASA cubesat mission that will test the orbit to be used by the lunar Gateway has slipped to next March, the result of broader launch delays Rocket Lab has suffered because of the pandemic.

NASA’s Ames Research Center tweeted Oct. 13 that it was now targeting March 2022 for the launch of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft. CAPSTONE is a 12-unit cubesat, developed by Colorado-based Advanced Space, that will test the stability of the near-rectilinear halo orbit, the orbit NASA plans to use for the lunar Gateway.

The announcement came one day after comments by NASA officials at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here. Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said the mission was now expected to launch “early next calendar year” while Andres Martinez, program executive for Advanced Exploration Systems, gave a specific no-earlier-than launch date of March 19, 2022.

Neither discussed why CAPSTONE was delayed, but Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an Oct. 13 interview that the schedule slip was part of broader delays in the company’s launch schedules caused by coronavirus lockdowns in New Zealand, where the company conducts its launches.

“That has been driven by COVID,” he said of the CAPSTONE delay. “It’s out of our control.”

Rocket Lab last performed an Electron launch July 29, flying a mission for the U.S. Space Force. At the time the company was preparing a series of three consecutive Electron launches of satellites for geospatial intelligence operator BlackSky, arranged by launch services company Spaceflight, between late August and the end of September. However, the company said in early September that lockdowns in New Zealand caused by a new wave of the pandemic had put those and other Electron launches on hold.

Beck said that the New Zealand government has moved away from the very strict lockdowns it had imposed to “more normal” lockdowns that do enable space launch activities to resume. Rocket Lab announced Oct. 11 it was preparing for back-to-back Electron launches of BlackSky satellites. One is scheduled for between Nov. 11 and 24, while the second will be no earlier than Nov. 27.

The company has not announced the schedule for any other upcoming Electron launches. Beck noted that, in a September earnings call, the company said it had five launches on the manifest for the fourth quarter but that its official guidance, as a publicly traded company, was that it expected only two to take place based on customer readiness and the pandemic situation in New Zealand.

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