NASA’s CAPSTONE looking ‘happy and healthy’ after communications issue

NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat is “happy and healthy” after reestablishing communications with Earth, bringing to an end a nerve-wracking 24-hour period in which the spacecraft was out of touch with ground communications.

Advanced Space, the Colorado-based company that built, owns and is operating CAPSTONE, Terran Orbital, which built the CubeSat platform, and NASA each independently confirmed the reconnection Wednesday.

CAPSTONE, or Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, is the first step for NASA’s ambitious Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon by the middle of this decade. The microwave oven-sized CubeSat is meant to chart out an unusual orbit around the moon, called a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), that could eventually be used for a lunar space station.

That space station, which NASA refers to as “Gateway,” could open up a huge array of possibilities for humanity’s exploration of space. Gateway could be used to deposit rovers or humans on the moon, act as a resupply depot or even as a way station for longer-crewed missions to Mars or beyond. But first, the agency wants to collect more data on NRHO — and that’s where CAPSTONE comes in.

A brief anomaly

Loss of communication occurred just one day after CAPSTONE deployed from Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon booster. Rocket Lab provided launch services and payload delivery services for the mission. CAPSTONE was operating as normal for the first eleven hours after its detachment from Photon, Advanced Space said in a statement. It successfully deployed its solar arrays and communicated with a Deep Space Network (DSN) ground station in Madrid, Spain. DNS is an international series of massive radio antennas operated by NASA for supporting deep space missions.

It seems the anomaly occurred during the second ground station pass with DSN, when CAPSTONE made partial contact with an antenna in California. As SpaceNews noted, amateur satellite observers first noticed the lack of downlink from CAPSTONE, causing a minor flurry of panic on Twitter. Due to the lack of communications, the first trajectory correction maneuver — the first in a series of maneuvers to ensure the spacecraft stays on an accurate trajectory to the moon — was delayed.

NASA noted in a July 5 mission update that CAPSTONE is still on track for the ballistic lunar transfer to its target orbit, even with the delay of this first maneuver. “One of the benefits of the BLT, the designed trajectory, is its robustness to delays such as this,” Advanced Space said in a mission update.

It is not clear why the underlying communications issue occurred, or what actions were taken to correct it. “Additional updates will be provided,” NASA said.