Mon. Aug 8th, 2022

NASA is struggling to make contact with its new CAPSTONE spacecraft, a small probe just launched from Earth to test a new orbit around the moon. Because of these communication problems, NASA had to postpone a planned maneuver of the vehicle to refine its path to deep space. The agency is still trying to reestablish contact.

CAPSTONE is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s efforts to eventually send humans back to the moon. As part of this lunar return, NASA plans to build a new space station in the moon’s orbit. But the orbit that NASA plans to use is unique; it’s a particularly elongated path that has never actually been used by a spacecraft. CAPSTONE is intended to serve as a pathfinder mission, with the spacecraft placing itself in that orbit and giving NASA some operational experience before the agency begins building its new station.

About the size of a microwave oven, CAPSTONE was launched from New Zealand on June 28 atop a small Electron rocket from the space company Rocket Lab. To give CAPSTONE an extra push toward the moon, Rocket Lab used a special booster called Photon, which remained attached to the satellite after the initial launch and periodically increased the satellite’s orbit. CAPSTONE finally detached from Photon on July 4, and in the first 11 hours after the separation, it appeared to be working fine, according to Advanced Space, which manufactured and piloted the spacecraft. CAPSTONE deployed its solar panels and began charging the onboard batteries.

The mission team was able to point CAPSTONE at Earth and establish communication with one of the dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network, a series of ground-based telescopes around the world that the agency uses to communicate with spacecraft that go to deep space. CAPSTONE was able to make contact with one of the telescopes in Madrid, Spain, allowing the team to begin viewing the satellite and preparing the vehicle for the upcoming maneuver to change its path, scheduled for July 5.

But according to NASA, the spacecraft ran into communication problems when it came into contact with another telescope in the Deep Space Network — this one in Goldstone, California. Advanced Space attributes the problem to a “deviation” in the communications subsystem. As a result, the July 5 maneuver has been postponed as the team attempts to re-establish contact with the spacecraft. The maneuver is intended to be the first in a planned series of similar adjustments that CAPSTONE will perform en route to the moon.

Ultimately, Advanced Space says CAPSTONE can handle the delay. The spacecraft will take a particularly long route to get to the moon, a route that will take about four months. It is a route that is particularly economical, but also time-consuming. Advanced Space says the route also gives the team time to fully understand the problem and come up with a solution before proceeding with the maneuver.

In the time when CAPSTONE did could make contact, the mission team was able to determine the spacecraft’s position and speed in space. Right now, CAPSTONE is about 177,000 miles (285,000 kilometers) from Earth. Engineers were also able to stabilize the spacecraft and they did everything they could to solve the communication problem. “CAPSTONE’s mission team has been working around the clock and over the holiday weekend to support this important mission,” Advanced Space wrote in its update.

Now CAPSTONE waits alone in space as the teams frantically attempt to re-establish contact. NASA says it will provide updates when they become available.

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