NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE lunar probe is once again in contact with its handlers, ending a short but frightening period of silence.
The 55 pounds (25 kilograms) CAPSTONE went dark on Monday (July 4), shortly after parting ways with his Rocket Lab Photon spaceship bus and heading to the moon. The mission team immediately got down to troubleshooting, and their efforts have already paid off.
“We have restored communications with CAPSTONE. The spacecraft appears happy and healthy. More details to come,” said Colorado-based Advanced Space, which manages the mission for NASA. said via Twitter today (opens in a new tab) (July 6).
Related: Why NASA’s tiny CAPSTONE probe will take so long to reach the moon
CAPSTONE launched into Earth orbit atop a Rocket Lab Electron booster on June 28, then spent a week drifting further and further away from our planet via occasional Photon Engine burns. Photon’s last shot on Monday kicked enough to send CAPSTONE on its way to the moonand the cubesat separated from the spacecraft bus shortly thereafter.
CAPSTONE then went through several other milestones in quick succession; the microwave-sized craft deployed its solar panels as planned, for example, and began preparing its onboard propulsion system for the first burn of its engine, NASA officials said said in an update yesterday (opens in a new tab) (July the 5th). CAPSTONE contacted the mission team twice via NASA Deep Space Network shortly after the split, but then died, for reasons that remain mysterious.
The loss of contact forced the CAPSTONE team to delay the first firing of the cubesat’s course 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 initial burn, NASA officials said in another update yesterday (opens in a new tab).
CAPSTONE is on its way to a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) around the moon, a highly elliptical trajectory that NASA has selected for its Gateway space station. No spacecraft has ever occupied a lunar NRHO, and CAPSTONE is responsible for verifying its stability for Gateway, which is a key NASA component. Artemis program lunar exploration.
It will take some time for CAPSTONE (short for “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment”) to arrive at its destination. Because it was launched aboard the 58-foot-tall (19-meter) Electron – a rocket designed to send small satellites into Earth orbit – the cubesat takes a long, looping and highly fuel-efficient route to the moon. If all goes as planned, CAPSTONE will slip into their NRHO on November 13.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).