NASA loses radio contact with CAPSTONE lunar probe
In a development that's thrown a spanner in the works of its US$37.2-million Artemis program, NASA has lost radio contact with its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) CubeSat space probe.
According to NASA, the loss of communications occurred on July 4, 2022, while CAPSTONE was in contact with the space agency's Deep Space Network (DSN) tracking and communication system designed to support deep space missions. The blackout came after the spacecraft separated from its Rocket Lab Photon upper stage booster, which had completed seven engine burns over six days, sending the robotic probe out of low-Earth orbit and on a four-month ballistic trajectory to cislunar space.
In a press update, NASA said that the DSN had good trajectory data for CAPSTONE and that the spacecraft has enough fuel onboard to allow it to delay a necessary post-separation burn for several days while NASA engineers try to locate the problem and reestablish radio contact.
Launched on June 28 atop a Rocket Lab Electron rocket at the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand, the 55-lb (25-kg) CAPSTONE satellite is on a nine-month mission to confirm the stability of the complex 3D Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) that will be used for the Gateway space station scheduled to launch in November 2024.
The NRHO does not center on any celestial body, but on a point in space where the gravitational forces of the Moon and Earth balance one another out. So far it has only been evaluated in computer simulations, but if tests prove its stability, it will allow Gateway to act as a staging outpost for missions to the Moon and Mars.