Rocket Lab has been selected by NASA as the provider for a small satellite mission to the same lunar orbit targeted for Gateway.

Gateway is an orbiting outpost that astronauts would visit before descending to the surface of the Moon in a landing system as part of NASA's Artemis program.

The firm-fixed-price launch contract was valued at $15.4 million (US$9.95m), according to a NASA press release.

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The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment - or CAPSTONE - was expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.

In other words, it would rotate with the Moon as it orbited Earth and pass as close as 1600km or 70,006km from the lunar surface.

It was hoped CAPSTONE would demonstrate how to enter into and operate in the orbit, as well as test new navigation capacity.

An illustration of NASA's CAPSTONE. Photo / NASA
An illustration of NASA's CAPSTONE. Photo / NASA

Rocket Lab was proud to bring the Moon within reach to enable further research and exploration, founder and chief executive Peter Beck said.

"Small satellites like CAPSTONE will play a crucial role in supporting the return of human missions to the Moon and we're proud to be supporting NASA in this unique and pivotal mission," he said.

"As a dedicated mission on Electron, we're able to provide NASA with complete control over every aspect of launch and mission design for CAPSTONE, something typically only available to much larger spacecraft on larger launch vehicles.

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"In the same way we opened access to low Earth orbit for small satellites, we're proud to be bringing the Moon within reach to enable research and exploration."

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The satellite would be launched from Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle from Launch Complex 2, located at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA.

CAPSTONE would be delivered on a ballistic lunar transfer by Rocket Lab's high-performance satellite bus platform Photon after launch.

It would take CAPSTONE around three months to enter its target orbit before starting a six-month primary demonstration phase to understand operation in its orbit.

The target for launch is in early 2021.