NASA blasted a nanosatellite barely bigger than a microwave oven into outer space Tuesday, part of a landmark mission to return humans to the Moon.
A rocket carrying the tiny CAPSTONE module successfully launched from New Zealand’s eastern Mahia Peninsula to a deafening blast and a wash of fiery propulsion.
“We have liftoff!” NASA said in a statement shortly after the 09:55 GMT launch, described by Bradley Smith, NASA’s director of launch services, as “absolutely fantastic.”
“This incredible team has just sent CAPSTONE on a ballistic trajectory to the lunar orbit,” he said.
All being well, in four months CAPSTONE will be in a position to begin innovative surfboard-shaped “near rectilinear halo orbits” around the Moon.
Weighing about as much as a suitcase, the satellite is trial-running an orbit for NASA’s “Gateway” space station — which will travel around the Moon and serve as a jumping off point for lunar exploration.
The orbit passes within 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres) of the Moon at its closest point, before catapulting to 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometres) away at the furthest.
Scientists hope the orbit will be super-efficient, using the pull of both the Moon and the Earth to minimise fuel use.
As part of the same project, the United States eventually plans to put the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon.
NASA also plans to build a moonbase, and use the experience as a stepping stone to a crewed flight to Mars.