NASA is having difficulty communicating with its new CAPSTONE spacecraft, a tiny probe that was recently launched from Earth to test out a new orbit around the Moon. NASA had to postpone a planned maneuver of the vehicle that would help refine its path to deep space due to communication issues. The agency is still attempting to make contact.
CAPSTONE is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to eventually return humans to the Moon. NASA intends to build a new space station in the Moon’s orbit as part of this lunar return. However, the orbit NASA wishes to use is unique; it is a particularly long path that has never been used by a spacecraft before. CAPSTONE is designed to be a pathfinder mission, inserting itself into that orbit and providing NASA with operational experience before the agency begins to build out its new station.
CAPSTONE, which is roughly the size of a microwave oven, launched from New Zealand on June 28th atop a small Electron rocket operated by the aerospace company Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab used a special booster called Photon to give CAPSTONE an extra push to the Moon. Photon stayed attached to the satellite after the initial launch and periodically raised the satellite’s orbit. CAPSTONE finally separated from Photon on July 4th, and it appeared to work fine in the first 11 hours after separation, according to Advanced Space, which manufactured and operates the spacecraft. CAPSTONE deployed its solar panels and began charging its onboard batteries.
The mission team was able to point CAPSTONE at Earth and communicate with one of the dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network, a network of ground-based telescopes around the world that the agency uses to communicate with spacecraft in deep space. CAPSTONE was able to communicate with one of the telescopes in Madrid, Spain, allowing the team to begin inspecting the satellite and preparing the vehicle for its upcoming path modification maneuver on July 5th.
However, according to NASA, the spacecraft began experiencing communication problems when it made contact with another Deep Space Network telescope, this one in Goldstone, California. The problem was attributed to a “anomaly” in the communications subsystem, according to Advanced Space. As a result, the July 5th maneuver has been pushed back until the team can reestablish contact with the spacecraft. The maneuver is the first in a series of similar adjustments that CAPSTONE will make on its way to the Moon.
Finally, Advanced Space claims that CAPSTONE can withstand the delay. The spacecraft is taking a particularly long path to the Moon, which will take approximately four months to complete. It’s a route that’s both fuel-efficient and time-consuming. According to Advanced Space, the route also allows the team to fully understand the problem and devise a solution before proceeding with the maneuver.
The mission team was able to determine the spacecraft’s position and velocity in space during the time that CAPSTONE did make contact. CAPSTONE is currently 177,000 miles (285,000 kilometers) from Earth. Engineers were also able to stabilize the spacecraft, and they have been working tirelessly to resolve the communications problem. “The CAPSTONE mission team has been working around the clock and over the holiday weekend to support this critical mission,” Advanced Space wrote in an update.
CAPSTONE is now alone in space, waiting for the teams to reestablish contact. NASA promises to provide updates as they become available.