Updated July 6 at 11:45 a.m. ET: On Wednesday morning, NASA announced that the mission team had reconnected with CAPSTONE. Our original story about the comms blackout that happened after spacecraft separated continue below.
NASA is struggling to make contact with its new CAPSTONE spacecraft, a tiny probe just launched from Earth to test a new orbit around the Moon. Due to these communication issues, NASA had to delay a planned maneuver of the vehicle that would help refine its trajectory to deep space. The agency is still trying to re-establish contact.
CAPSTONE is the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s efforts to eventually return humans to the Moon. As part of this lunar return, NASA plans to build a new space station in orbit of the Moon. But the orbit that NASA wants to use is unique; it’s a particularly elongated path that’s never really been used by a spacecraft before. CAPSTONE is meant to serve as a guidance mission, with the spacecraft inserting itself into that orbit and giving NASA some operational experience before the agency begins building its new station.
The size of a microwave oven, CAPSTONE was launched from New Zealand on June 28 atop 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 remained attached to the satellite after the initial launch and periodically raised the satellite’s orbit. CAPSTONE finally detached from Photon on July 4, and within the first 11 hours after separation it appeared to be functioning well, according to Advanced Space, which manufactured and operated the spacecraft. CAPSTONE deployed its solar panels and began recharging its onboard batteries.
The mission team was able to point CAPSTONE at Earth and establish communication with one of NASA’s Deep Space Network dishes, a series of ground-based telescopes around the world that the agency uses to communicate with craft. spacecraft heading into deep space. CAPSTONE was able to make contact with one of the telescopes in Madrid, Spain, allowing the team to begin checking the satellite and preparing the vehicle for its next course-altering maneuver, scheduled for the July the 5th.
But, according to NASA, the spacecraft began having communication problems when it made contact with another Deep Space Network telescope – this one in Goldstone, California. Advanced Space blamed the problem on an “anomaly” in the communications subsystem. As a result, the July 5 maneuver was postponed while the team attempts to re-establish contact with the spacecraft. The maneuver is meant 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 route to get to the Moon, a route that will take about four months. It is a particularly fuel-efficient but also time-consuming journey. Advanced Space says the route also gives the team time to fully understand the problem and find a solution before proceeding with the maneuver.
Back when CAPSTONE did making contact, the mission team was able to determine the spacecraft’s position and speed in space. Currently, CAPSTONE is approximately 177,000 miles (285,000 kilometers) from Earth. The engineers were also able to stabilize the spacecraft and they did everything possible to solve the communication problem. “The CAPSTONE mission team has been working around the clock and throughout the holiday weekend in support of this important mission,” Advanced Space wrote in its update.
Now CAPSTONE waits alone in space as the teams furiously attempt to reestablish contact. NASA says it will provide updates as they become available.