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NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar cube restores contact

NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE lunar probe is back in touch with its handlers, ending a brief but eerie period of silence.

The 55 pounds (25 kilograms) CAPSTONE went dark on Monday (July 4), shortly after parting ways with his Rocket Lab photon spacecraft bus and on the way to the moon. The mission team immediately started troubleshooting, and their efforts have already been rewarded.

“We have restored communication with CAPSTONE. The spaceship looks happy and healthy. More details to come,” said Colorado-based Advanced Space, which operates the mission for NASA. said today via Twitter (opens in new tab) (July 6).

Related: Why NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe is taking so long to reach the moon

KEYSTONE Launched into Earth orbit on June 28 on a Rocket Lab Electron Booster, it then spent a week traveling farther and farther from our planet through occasional photon engine burns. The last photon fire on Monday gave enough kick to send CAPSTONE on its way the moonand the cubesat separated from the spacecraft bus shortly thereafter.

CAPSTONE then achieved several other major milestones in quick succession; The microwave-sized vehicle, for example, deployed its solar arrays as planned and began preparing its onboard propulsion system for its first engine fire, NASA officials said said in an update yesterday (opens in new tab) (5th July). CAPSTONE contacted the mission team twice through NASA Deep Space Network shortly after the split, but then it went dark for mysterious reasons.

The loss of contact forced the CAPSTONE team to delay the first burn of the Cubesat’s trajectory correction engine, which was scheduled for yesterday. But that shouldn’t be a big deal; The spacecraft has enough fuel to handle a “several days” delay in that first burn, NASA officials said yesterday in another update (opens in new tab).

CAPSTONE is en route to a near-linear halo orbit (NRHO) around the Moon, a highly elliptical orbit chosen by NASA for its Gateway space station. No spacecraft has ever manned an NRHO on the Moon, and CAPSTONE is tasked with verifying its stability for Gateway, which is a key NASA asset Artemis program of lunar exploration.

CAPSTONE (short for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) will take a while to reach its destination. Launched aboard the 19-metre-tall Electron – a rocket designed to launch small satellites into Earth orbit – the CubeSat is taking a long, winding and extremely fuel-efficient route to the moon. If all goes according to plan, CAPSTONE will slip into its NRHO on November 13th.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaelwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).