NASA loses contact with CAPSTONE pathfinder spacecraft

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.”

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 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. It’s unclear what the fate of CAPSTONE will be if NASA is unable to regain communications in time for its first post separation trajectory correction maneuver.

CAPSTONE is about the size of a microwave oven, according to NASA. The agency 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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