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A tiny NASA spacecraft launches to test out a new orbit around the Moon

Early this morning, a small NASA spacecraft about the size of a microwave embarked on the beginning of a four-month-long journey to the Moon, where it will eventually insert itself into a unique, elongated lunar orbit that no NASA mission has visited before. The spacecraft’s goal is simple: test out this particular orbit and see what it’s like. That’s because it’s the same orbit that lunar-bound astronauts could use in the coming decade.

This distinctive orbit is called “near rectilinear halo orbit,” or NRHO for short. It’s a special seven-day path that spacecraft can take around the Moon, bringing vehicles relatively close to the lunar surface for one day before they swing out far from the Moon for the other six.

NASA is considering leveraging this orbit for its Artemis program — the agency’s effort to send the first woman and the first person of color to the surface of the Moon. Over the next decade, NASA wants to build a new space station around the Moon called the Gateway, a place that will serve as a training platform and living quarters for future astronauts headed to the lunar surface. And the space agency wants to park the Gateway on this loopy path around the Moon.

Since NASA hasn’t sent any spacecraft into this orbit before, the agency doesn’t have any experience with what it’s like to operate a vehicle there. This mission, called CAPSTONE, is meant to serve as a pathfinder. It can also be considered the first mission of the entire Artemis program, kicking off an intricately planned timeline that may culminate with people walking on the Moon again after more than half a century. “We view the CAPSTONE mission as a whole as a valuable precursor,” Nujoud Merancy, chief of the exploration mission planning office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said during a press conference.

When astronauts went to the Moon during Apollo, their path to the Moon was a more or less a straight shot on a massive rocket called the Saturn V. Once they arrived, they eventually put themselves into a relatively circular orbit around the Moon, one that brought them within 62 miles of the surface. That way, they could get down to the ground and back into lunar orbit relatively quickly.

This approach got them to the Moon fast but required a lot of resources. “One of the things that unfortunately you have to look at with respect to bringing spacecraft and equipment to the Moon using that typical approach is the significant amount of fuel that’s required,” Elwood Agasid, deputy program manager of the small spacecraft technology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center, tells The Verge.

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