NASA has blasted a nanosatellite barely bigger than a microwave oven into outer space, 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.

All being well, in four months CAPSTONE will be in a position to begin an 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 1,600km of the Moon at its closest point, before catapulting to 70,000km 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.