After losing contact with CAPSTONE, NASA has its satellite back on radar



NASA successfully reconnected with CAPSTONE, the little satellite that launched it into space to explore a unique orbit around the moon.

After the spacecraft’s successful deployment on July 4 from the Rocket Lab Lunar Photon, CAPSTONE’s communications with NASA were cut. At 9:26 a.m. ET on July 6, the space agency restored contact with the spacecraft and closed CAPSTONE remains in good health and on track to the moon.

The CAPSTONE mission is an important step in advancing NASA’s Artemis program, which will culminate in the landing of the first woman and first person of color on the moon by NASA. The goal of CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) is to test different technologies in a lunar orbit called a “near rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO). In the near future, NASA plans to use this particular orbit as a path for gate — a space station that will support the Artemis mission and deep space exploration.

The journey from CAPSTONE to orbit around the moon takes about four months. the satellite launched from Earth on June 28 aboard a Rocket Lab rocket. Now that CAPSTONE is completely disconnected from the rocket, it will use its own propulsion and the sun’s gravity to navigate the rest of the way.

However, it does have to make some trajectory correction maneuvers. The first was originally scheduled for the morning of July 5. This was delayed due to communication problems. However, the maneuver is now back on track and is expected to be executed on July 7 at 11:30 a.m. ET.

The first orbit correction maneuver is intended to initiate a series of minor corrections, increasing the accuracy of the transfer to lunar orbit. After successful completion of the maneuver, the spacecraft remains on track to enter orbit around the moon on Nov. 13. The Advanced Space mission team that initially reconnected confirmed that CAPSTONE is in the expected location and they continue to work to isolate the source of the communication loss. Tests to date suggest that the problem was caused by the communication system’s commissioning activities.

Despite this minor setback, other milestones of the initial implementation of CAPSTONE were achieved as expected. The spacecraft has deployed solar panels, has stabilized, has begun charging the onboard battery and has its propulsion system ready for its first maneuver. CAPSTONE also made initial contact with the Deep Space Network (DSN), a ground segment spacecraft facility in Madrid, Spain, followed by signals to a communications center in Goldstone, California. This allowed operators to determine the approximate position and speed of the CubeSat.

Once it arrives in orbit, CAPSTONE is planned to orbit the Moon for a period of at least six months to collect data on the orbit’s characteristics – specifically, the power and propulsion requirements to maintain its orbit, as predicted by NASA models. By passing this data on to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been orbiting the moon since 2009, as well as ground stations, CAPSTONE will also demonstrate the capability of spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solutions, as well as communication standards with Earth.

The success of CAPSTONE would be the last in a series of wins for smaller and cheaper spacecraft, and would pave the way and expand the possibilities for sister space exploration missions to destinations across the solar system.

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