CAPSTONE: NASA announces problems with the lunar satellite

Test Cubesat was launched a week ago and faces communication failure

The CAPSTONE mission launched on June 28, 2022.. Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus will deliver CAPSTONE into a trajectory toward the Moon. Credits: Illustration by NASA/Daniel Rutter

NASA issued a statement on the issues with the CAPSTONE cubesat mission on July 5, 2022:

“Following successful orbit placement and the start of commissioning of the spacecraft on July 4, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment ( CAPSTONE ) experienced communication problems while in contact with the Deep Space Network. The person in charge is currently working to understand the cause and re-establish contact. The team has good spacecraft trajectory data based on the ground station's first complete and second partial passes with the Deep Space Network. If necessary, the mission has enough propellant to delay the initial post-separation trajectory correction maneuver for several days. Additional updates will be provided as soon as possible.”

After its launch on June 28, CAPSTONE orbited Earth attached to the Photon upper stage of its Rocket Lab's Electron launcher rocket, which it maneuvered into position for its transfer to the Moon. Over the following six days, Photon's engines fired seven times at key moments to raise the highest point of the orbit to about 1,303,568 km from Earth before releasing the cubesat on its lunar ballistic lunar transfer trajectory. The spacecraft is being piloted by the Advanced Space and Terran Orbital teams.

As a trailblazer for the Gateway lunar transshipment station, which is part of NASA's Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce the risk for future manned spacecraft by validating new navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of their halo-shaped orbit. This orbit, formally known as the quasi-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), is significantly elongated. Its location at an equilibrium point in the gravities of Earth and Moon provides stability for long-term missions like the Gateway and requires minimal energy to maintain. CAPSTONE's orbit will also establish a point that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE 1,600 km from one lunar pole at its close pass and 70,000 km from the other pole at its apogee every seven days,

After a four-month journey to its destination, CAPSTONE will orbit this area around the Moon for at least six months to study the orbit's characteristics. Specifically, it will validate the power and propulsion requirements to maintain its orbit as predicted by the space agency's models, reducing logistical uncertainties. It will also demonstrate the reliability of spacecraft navigation solutions as well as Earth communication capabilities. The NRHO orbit offers the advantage of an unobstructed view of Earth, in addition to coverage of the lunar south pole.

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