CAPSTONE lunar orbiter phones home

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Two days after losing contact with the moon-bound CAPSTONE orbiter, company flight controllers were able to recontact the 55-pound probe, reporting Wednesday “the spacecraft is happy and healthy.”

It’s not yet known what caused the microwave-size CAPSTONE to drop out of contact Monday, shortly after separation from its upper stage booster, or how engineers managed to re-establish communications. But Advanced Space, owner and operator of the $20 million satellite, promised “more details to come.”

We have re-established communications with CAPSTONE.The spacecraft is looking happy and healthy. More details to come.

— Advanced Space (@AdvancedSpace) July 6, 2022

Built by Terran Orbital for Advanced Space, CAPSTONE was launched from New Zealand on June 28 by a Rocketlab Electron booster to help NASA confirm details of an unusual lunar orbit planned for the agency’s Artemis moon program.

Rocketlab’s Photon upper stage released CAPSTONE on Monday after a series of thruster firings to pump up the spacecraft’s velocity and put it on a four-month, 800,000-mile trajectory to a point where it can slip into the planned elliptical “halo” orbit around the moon in mid-November.

Flight controllers then began activating and checking out the spacecraft, completing one communications session and part of a second when an issue of some sort interrupted the flow of telemetry. A planned trajectory correction maneuver was delayed while engineers scrambled to figure out what went wrong and re-establish communications.

An artist’s impression of the CAPSTONE spacecraft in orbit around the moon. / Credit: NASA

Those efforts apparently paid off Wednesday, but no details were immediately available.

CAPSTONE is bound for a “near rectilinear halo orbit,” or NRHO, around the moon’s poles that will be used by NASA’s Gateway space station, a small outpost being built to serve as a testbed and staging base for Artemis moon landing missions.

Spacecraft in such highly elliptical, gravitationally stable orbits are able to minimize fuel usage, remain in direct line of sight with Earth for continuous communications and can reach a variety of landing targets. While not capable of landing, CAPSTONE will be the first spacecraft to put such an orbit to the test.

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