Rocket Lab plans to send small satellites to the Moon with Photon

Only really, really little astronauts need apply

With launchpads in New Zealand and (soon) the US, small-sat flinger Rocket Lab toasted a ninth successful launch of its Electron rocket by taking aim at destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit.

Having successfully sent the payload of its most recent mission, "As The Crow Flies", to an altitude of more than 1,000km, CEO Peter Beck is now eyeing Geostationary or Lunar orbits for the small satellites flung into space by its Electron launcher.

The plan is to use the existing Electron rocket, the Photon small spacecraft platform, and "a dedicated bulk maneuver stage" to send a payload on a lunar flyby or into lunar orbit, to Lagrange points or to the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) favoured by NASA for its Lunar Gateway station.

NASA has announced plans for a mission to send a microwave-oven sized CubeSat into a NRHO by the end of 2020. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission is designed to check out spacecraft systems and communications ahead of the arrival of humans.

And CubeSats are the name of the game. While the 50kg (wet mass) Photon platform can transport 170kg into Low Earth Orbit, a Rocket Lab spokesperson told The Register that 30kg would be all that could be delivered to lunar orbit or NRHO.

Of course, since Photon deals with the communications, avionics and attitude control, that 30kg would be pure payload. Beck said: "Just like LEO small spacecraft, many potential exploration instruments and full satellites are on shelves waiting for launch to deeper space." And he has just the rocket, naturally.

The Photon platform was designed with missions beyond Low Earth Orbit in mind, with radiation-hardened electronics and an engine capable of multiple restarts.

The spokesperson also told us the lunar shenanigans would not impact plans to recover spent Electron stages, and said "in most cases" the Electron launcher could be reusable after depositing a Photon stack into space.

The gang is currently working with interested customers targeting missions in 2020 with the first launch scheduled to occur during Q4. ®

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