NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar probe is in more trouble than we thought

Artist's impression of CAPSTONE.

Artist’s impression of CAPSTONE.
picture: NASA

Controllers with the CAPSTONE mission are tries to regain control of the Moon-bound probe currently reeling, having temperature issues and unable to use its solar panels to fully charge its batteries.

in a (n To update Advanced Space, published Monday, described it as a “dynamic operational situation.” The company is leading the project for NASA, in which the 55-pound (25-kilogram) CubeSat will evaluate a unique halo orbit around the moon in advance moon space station. KEYSTONEshort for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, started on June 28 and is in the middle of a four-month trip to the moon.

That problem started either during or after the third trajectory correction maneuver (TCM-3) on Sep 8. An unknown issue caused CAPSTONE to fall – an issue beyond the ability of the probe’s onboard reaction wheels to counteract. according to to NASA.

CAPSTONE will need to make seven course corrections to reach its intended lunar halo orbit.  The most recent anomaly occurred either during or after the third trajectory maneuver on Sep 8.

CAPSTONE must perform seven Course corrections to achieve the intended halo orbit around the moon. The most recent anomaly occurred either during or after the third trajectory maneuver on Sep 8.
graphic: Expanded Space

Several course corrections are required to move the probe towards its intended lunar orbit, known as near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), emanating from CAPSTONE reachable on November 13th. CAPSTONE reached apogee – its farthest point – on August 26 at a distance of 951,908 miles (1.53 million kilometers) from our planet.

After the last course correction, ground stations were unable to receive any meaningful communications from CAPSTONE, prompting Advanced Space to declare an operational emergency. When contact was finally reestablished about 24 hours later, “mission controllers found that the spacecraft was falling, onboard computer systems were periodically resetting, and the spacecraft was using more power than it was producing from its solar panels,” NASA explained.

Luckily, the pilots managed to stabilize the spacecraft using NASA’s Deep Space Network, a series of giant radio antennas used to support interplanetary spacecraft missions. “The quick response enabled by the support of the Deep Space Network and the quick thinking of the Terran Orbital team allowed the mission operators to quickly reconfigure the spacecraft’s operational state to stabilize the situation while the recovery plans continue to be evaluated could be,” he said Extended space update. A salvage team composed of experts from NASA, Advanced Space, Terran Orbital (the designer and manufacturer of CAPSTONE) and Stellar Exploration (the provider of the propulsion system of CAPSTONE) is currently evaluating the next steps. According to Advanced Space, without the Deep Space Network, the team would have “little if any information about the status of the spacecraft.” However, teams are still hampered by incomplete information.

The good news is that CAPSTONE has been placed in a stable state. It’s still staggering and in safe mode, but it’s now generating more power than it’s using. The CubeSat is currently rotating so that its solar panels are partially illuminated, resulting in weak transmissions from its low-gain antennas. Importantly, the probe successfully completed its third trajectory correction maneuver, meaning it is still on course for its special halo orbit around the moon.

The recovery team will make a decision on how to proceed in the coming days. In addition to diagnosing the cause of the anomaly, the team must resolve unspecified temperature issues with multiple subsystems, including the propulsion system. The team also prepares to crash the spacecraft to regain control of its orientation. There is good reason to believe this procedure will work, as a similar de-stumbling operation was conducted in July after CAPSTONE separated from the Electron rocket’s upper stage.

Assuming CAPSTONE can be lifted from its fall, the controllers will align the solar panels to fully charge the probe’s batteries, allowing the mission to proceed as planned. But as Advanced Space grimly noted, “Many details about the cause of the anomaly remain unknown, and significant risks continue to be analyzed.” CAPSTONE is not off the hook, but there is reason for optimism.

CAPSTONE is a precursor mission for what is to come Artemis program, in which NASA is aiming for a permanent and sustainable return to the lunar environment. To support the Artemis crews, NASA and its international partners are trying to place a space station called Gateway in the gravitationally stable Halo orbit. No probe has ever worked in NHRO, hence the importance of the CAPSTONE scouting mission.

More: Blue Origin Booster suffers a fiery anomaly during uncrewed suborbital launch.

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