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NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar probe bounces back from a breakdown, an ace engine on fire

NASA’s small CAPSTONE lunar probe has recovered from its recent hiccup.

The 55 pounds (25 kilograms) KEYSTONE successfully conducted its first engine burn today (July 7), an 11-minute maneuver that began at 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT) and changed its speed by 45 mph (72 km/h) as planned, NASA said Officer said in an update (opens in new tab).

CAPSTONE is now about 289,000 miles (465,000 kilometers) from Earth, agency officials added. That is well beyond the orbit of the moon, but that’s part of the plan; The probe is taking a long, tortuous, and extremely fuel-efficient path that will take it into lunar orbit on November 13.

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

Today’s cremation was originally scheduled to take place on Tuesday (July 5), but the CAPSTONE team later delayed it briefly lost contact with the Cubesat. This loss of communications occurred on Monday (July 4), shortly after CAPSTONE separated from its Rocket Lab photon spacecraft bus and began his long solo journey to the moon. (CAPSTONE launched on June 28 on a Rocket Lab Electron Booster, then spent a week in Earth orbit, using photon thrusters to travel ever farther from our planet.)

The CAPSTONE team announced yesterday morning (July 6th) that this was the case contact restored with the microwave-sized probe. And mission engineers have already figured out what caused the failure.

On Monday while investigating inconsistent CAPSTONE range data noticed by NASA technicians Deep Space Network“The spacecraft operations team attempted to access diagnostic data from the spacecraft radio and sent an incorrectly formatted command that rendered the radio inoperable,” NASA officials wrote another update today (opens in new tab).

“The spacecraft’s error detection system should have restarted the radio immediately, but didn’t do so due to a bug in the spacecraft’s flight software,” they added. “CAPSTONE’s autonomous flight software system eventually corrected the error and brought the spacecraft back into communication with the ground, allowing the team to implement recovery procedures and begin piloting the spacecraft again.”

CAPSTONE is in full swing now if today’s burn is any indication. And the probe will soon have another chance to prove itself: the mission team plans to perform another trajectory correction on Saturday (July 9).

After that, there will be a series of more burns, allowing CAPSTONE to refine its course to the moon. If all goes according to plan, in about four months the Cubesat will slide into a highly elliptical near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around Earth’s nearest neighbor.

The lunar NRHO is considered very stable, which explains why NASA chose it for its Gateway space station, which is a key part of the agency Artemis program of lunar exploration. But never before has a spacecraft manned a lunar NRHO. CAPSTONE will spend at least six months in orbit, helping engineers and mission planners verify its alleged stability.

CAPSTONE also carries two technology demonstrations that could help future spacecraft navigate near the Moon without having as much tracking from Earth as is currently required, NASA officials said.

CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) is a NASA project, but Colorado company Advanced Space is operating the mission under a $20 million contract the space agency awarded in 2019.

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).