CAPSTONE! Phone Home!

CAPSTONE! Phone Home!

NASA’s CAPSTONE cubesat, successfully launched by Rocket Lab last week, is not communicating with Earth. A public-private partnership between NASA and Advanced Space, LLC, the pathfinding cubesat separated from Rocket Lab’s upper stage yesterday, but soon stopped talking to NASA’s Deep Space Network. Troubleshooting is underway. [Update: communications were restored on July 6.]

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) spacecraft, about the size of a microwave oven, was developed through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The effort is led by Advanced Space in Westminster, CO.

Illustration of the CAPSTONE spacecraft orbiting the Moon with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA/Daniel Rutter

The 55-pound spacecraft’s purpose is to test out a new orbit around the Moon that NASA plans to use for a small space station, Gateway, as part of its Artemis program. This elliptical Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) will bring a spacecraft as close as 1,000 miles of one lunar pole but 43,500 miles from the other every seven days. CAPSTONE will validate NASA’s models of requirements for  power and propulsion to maintain the orbit and test navigation capabilities using another NASA satellite that’s been orbiting the Moon since 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, as a reference point.

NASA awarded Advanced Space a $13.7 million contract to develop and manage the spacecraft. It was designed and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, a Terran Orbital Corporation. Terran Orbital also manages mission operations. CAPSTONE is owned and operated by Advanced Space on behalf of NASA.

CAPSTONE was launched on June 28 from New Zealand on a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle. The launch cost $9.95 million.

After several days of orbit-raising maneuvers by Electron’s Photon upper stage, CAPSTONE was released for the journey to the Moon yesterday.

NASA said this evening that after successfully separating, CAPSTONE deployed its solar arrays, began charging its battery, and made initial contact with NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Madrid, Spain. It later had a partial contact with a second DSN antenna in Goldstone, CA, but then communications were lost. The CAPSTONE team is “working to understand the cause and re-establish contact.”

Advanced Space acknowledged the “anomaly” noting that everything was fine for the first 11 hours and preparations were underway for the first trajectory correction maneuver. That now has been delayed.

CAPSTONE is on a unique Ballistic Lunar Transfer (BLT) trajectory to the Moon that will take about four months. Advanced Space characterized it as having a “robustness to delays such as this.”

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