Update July 6, 11:45 am ET: On Wednesday morning, NASA announced that the mission team had reestablished contact with CAPSTONE. Our original story about the communications failure that occurred after the spacecraft separated further down.
NASA is struggling to make contact with its new CAPSTONE spacecraft, a tiny probe that has just been launched from Earth to test a new orbit around the moon. Because of these communication problems, NASA had to delay a planned maneuver of the vehicle that would help refine its path into space. The agency continues to try to reestablish contact.
CAPSTONE is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s effort to eventually send humans back to the Moon. As part of this return to the moon, NASA plans to build a new space station in orbit around the moon. But the orbit NASA intends to use is unique; It’s a particularly elongated path that’s never actually been used by a spacecraft before. CAPSTONE is intended to serve as a pathfinder mission, inserting the spacecraft into that orbit and giving NASA some operational experience before the agency begins construction of its new station.
About the size of a microwave oven, CAPSTONE launched from New Zealand on June 28 on a small electron rocket operated by aerospace company Rocket Lab. To give CAPSTONE an extra boost to the Moon, Rocket Lab used a special booster called Photon, which stayed attached to the satellite after initial launch and periodically boosted the satellite’s orbit. CAPSTONE eventually separated from Photon on July 4, and for the first 11 hours after separation it appeared to be working well, 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 establish communication with one of the dishes on NASA’s Deep Space Network, a series of ground-based telescopes around the world that the agency uses to communicate with spacecraft that fly into space. CAPSTONE was able to contact one of the telescopes in Madrid, Spain, allowing the team to begin checking the satellite and preparing the vehicle for the upcoming maneuver to change its orbit, scheduled for July 5.
However, according to NASA, the spacecraft experienced communication problems while in contact with another telescope on the Deep Space Network – this one in Goldstone, California. Advanced Space blamed an “anomaly” in the communications subsystem for the problem. As a result, the July 5 maneuver was postponed while the team tries to reestablish contact with the spacecraft. The maneuver is said to be the first in a planned series of similar adjustments CAPSTONE will make on its way to the moon.
Ultimately, Advanced Space says CAPSTONE can handle the lag. The spacecraft takes a particularly long way to the moon, which will take about four months. It is a route that is particularly fuel efficient but also time consuming. According to Advanced Space, the route also gives the team time to fully understand the problem and find a solution before proceeding with the maneuver.
In the time when CAPSTONE did By making contact, the mission team was able to determine the spacecraft’s position and speed in space. CAPSTONE is currently approximately 177,000 miles (285,000 kilometers) from Earth. The engineers were also able to stabilize the spacecraft and they did everything in their power to fix the communication problem. “The CAPSTONE 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 desperately try to reestablish contact. NASA says it will provide updates as they become available.