Spaceflight Insider

UPDATE: Contact with CAPSTONE re-established

An illustration of NASA's CAPSTONE spacecraft orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

An illustration of NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA

NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft, designed to pave the way for the Artemis program’s Lunar Gateway outpost, has “experienced communications issues.”

UPDATE: At about 11:30 a.m. EDT (15:30 UTC) July 6, NASA said mission operators have re-established contact with CAPSTONE. The spacecraft operator, Advanced Space, said the spacecraft is “looking happy and healthy” and “more details” are to come.

On the morning of July 5, contact was lost during the spacecraft’s second pass of NASA’s Deep Space Network, about a day after the CAPSTONE separated from Rocket Lab’s Photon kick stage following its insertion into a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory. The CubeSat is designed to use its onboard propulsion to place itself into a “near-rectilinear halo orbit” around the Moon over the next several months to prove the stability of the orbit and test a spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technique.

“The team has good trajectory data for the spacecraft based on the first full and second partial ground station pass with the Deep Space Network,” NASA’s July 5 update about the communications issues reads. “If needed, the mission has enough fuel to delay the initial post separation trajectory correction maneuver for several days.

CAPSTONE, which stands for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, was orbited by Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at 5:55 a.m. EDT (09:55 UTC) June 28, 2022, from the company’s New Zealand launch site.

Over the next six days, the Photon kick stage performed seven burns to raise its orbit’s maximum altitude to 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers). Then, at 3:18 a.m. EDT (07:18 UTC) July 4, CAPSTONE was released to begin its solo trek to the Moon.

Under the current plan, the spacecraft is supposed to take about four months to reach the near-rectilinear halo orbit with a final maneuver to enter that orbit planned for Nov. 13.

According to Advanced Space, before the communications issues, the spacecraft was operating nominally for about 11 hours. During that time, company said the microwave oven-sized spacecraft had separated from Photon, deployed its solar arrays and achieved three-axis stabilization, entered a battery charging mode, executed Earth-pointing mode and communicated with Deep Space Network stations in Madrid, Spain.

Advanced Space said the propulsion system was also commissioned and the team was preparing the spacecraft for its first trajectory correction maneuver, which was scheduled for July 5. Following the anomaly, NASA said CAPSTONE has enough fuel to delay the correction maneuver for “several days.”

NASA has spent about $30 million on the program between contracts with the spacecraft’s builder, Colorado-based Advanced Space, and Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab mission control just before the Photon kick stage placed CAPSTONE in a ballistic lunar trajectory. Credit: Peter Beck / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab mission control just before the Photon kick stage placed CAPSTONE in a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory. Credit: Peter Beck / Rocket Lab

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.

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