NASA loses contact with moon-bound spacecraft

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Flight controllers have lost contact with a small pathfinder spacecraft launched last week to test an unusual lunar orbit planned for NASA’s Artemis moon program, the agency said Tuesday. Engineers are troubleshooting and attempting to re-establish communications.

Launched last Tuesday from New Zealand atop a Rocketlab Electron rocket, the CAPSTONE spacecraft relied on a compact-but-sophisticated upper stage for thruster firings to repeatedly “pump up” the high point of an increasingly elliptical orbit to the point where it could break free of Earth’s gravity and head for the moon.

Those maneuvers went well and CAPSTONE was released from Rocketlab’s Photon upper stage early Monday to fly on its own. NASA confirmed successful solar array deployment and an initial communications session. But a second session apparently was cut short for some reason and flight controllers lost contact.

An artist’s impression of the CAPSTONE spacecraft in orbit around the moon. NASA lost contact with the small probe Monday. / Credit: NASA

“Following successful deployment and start of spacecraft commissioning on July 4, the (CAPSTONE) spacecraft experienced communications issues while in contact with the Deep Space Network,” NASA said Tuesday. “The spacecraft team currently is working to understand the cause and re-establish contact.”

Engineers apparently were able to complete an initial communications session and at least part of the second before contact was lost. The spacecraft has enough propellant to carry out a later-than-planned trajectory correction maneuver if communications can be restored.

CAPSTONE was launched to serve as a pathfinder for NASA’s planned Gateway lunar space station, testing an unusual lunar orbit that’s critical to the agency’s Artemis moon program.

Owned and operated by Advanced Space of Westminster, Colorado, CAPSTONE also is designed to measure the deep space radiation environment and test techniques that one day might determine a moon-orbiting spacecraft’s exact location without relying on Earth-based tracking.

CAPSTONE was released on a trajectory that will carry it more than 800,000 miles from Earth — more than three times the 240,000-mile distance between Earth and moon — before it reaches a point where it can slip into the planned “near rectilinear halo orbit,” or NRHO, around the moon’s poles.

But communications are essential and contact must be restored for the spacecraft to carry out its mission.

“If anything goes wrong (with the CAPSTONE mission), we have full plans that we can move forward with Gateway and really all of the Artemis missions that will use NRHO,” Nujoud Merancy, chief of the Exploration Mission Planning Office at the Johnson Space Center, said before launch.

“This data would be really valuable … but it’s not necessary or required to proceed,” she added. That said, it’s “always good to get more data and improve our modeling, but we have full confidence in the data that will be happening either way.”

The CAPSTONE mission cost roughly $30 million, NASA said: $20 million for the spacecraft, its development and operations, and another $10 million for the Electron launcher.

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