NASA reestablishes communications with its wayward CAPSTONE satellite

It’s been a wild few days for NASA’s CAPSTONE mission. Following the successful launch of the lunar satellite from Rocket Lab’s site on New Zealand’s Mahia peninsula, ground control lost contact with the spacecraft shortly after it escaped Earth’s gravity well and separated from its electron rocket carrier on Monday. But after nearly a full day in the dark, NASA announced on Wednesday that its engineers had managed to reopen a connection to the 55-pound satellite.

While the situation was worrying, NASA had considered just such a possibility. “If necessary, the mission has enough fuel to delay the initial post-separation trajectory correction maneuver by several days,” a NASA spokesman said on Monday.

Dubbed the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), this spacecraft had spent almost a week orbiting the planet to build up enough momentum to launch it on a four-month Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) route to the moon. Once CAPSTONE arrives on November 13, it will follow the upcoming Lunar Gateway’s planned near rectilinear halo orbit to check the stability of the path.

“Specifically, it will validate the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, thereby reducing logistical uncertainties,” NASA described in an April blog post. “The orbit will peak CAPSTONE every seven days within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole at its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole, requiring less propulsion capacity for spacecraft flying to and from the lunar surface than other circular orbits.” “

Upon launch in 2024, the Gateway will initially act as a staging platform for the larger Artemis mission and lunar colonization efforts, and then advance further into the solar system to eventually colonize Mars. NASA plans to follow that launch with that of the Orion spacecraft — the launch window extends from August 23 to September 6 — which will assess the impact of a trans-lunar voyage on astronaut physiology.

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