Communications are a concern for CAPSTONE

The lunar spacecraft dubbed as CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) will evaluate and confirm the predicted orbital stability intended for the Lunar Gateway space station. This 12-unit CubeSat will test a navigation technology that will allow it to determine its position in relation to NASA’s LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) without the use of ground stations. It will spend more than six months orbiting the Moon after being launched in 2022.

The CAPSTONE cubesat “had communications problems” during its second encounter with the DSN (Deep Space Network) following its deployment from Rocket Lab’s Lunar Photon kick stage on July 4, according to a statement from NASA on July 5. Speculation that anything was amiss with the spacecraft arose after amateur satellite observers observed deficiencies in communications from it.

NASA stated in its statement that “the spacecraft team is presently working to investigate the cause and re-establish contact.” It added that controllers received good information on the spacecraft’s trajectory from the maiden DSN pass as well as second, though partial, DSN pass. The initial post-separation trajectory adjustment maneuver could be postponed for several days if necessary due to the mission’s fuel supply.

Although NASA sponsored the CAPSTONE project, it was run by the Colorado-based firm Advanced Space. “An abnormality was experienced linked to the communication subsystem during commissioning activities,” the business stated in a statement late on July 5. “The operations team is actively investigating this matter with the Deep Space Network and evaluating the best next actions.”

The spacecraft had its solar panels deployed and was charging its own batteries, according to Advanced Space, when the communications issue occurred. For a trajectory adjustment maneuver, it has also completed the commissioning of its propulsion system.

Later Artemis missions as well as the lunar Gateway will use the information that NASA-funded CAPSTONE to gather about the that halo orbit stability. Officials from the agency, however, have already stated that while the data of CAPSTONE is going to be useful to improve plans for the Artemis missions, it is not absolutely necessary.

Rocket Lab claims that after launching CAPSTONE onto its own lunar trajectory and then releasing it, its own Lunar Photon vehicle still is functional as CAPSTONE engineers attempt to reestablish touch with that cubesat.

Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab, informed reporters on July 5 that Lunar Photon is “well and healthy.” “We’re now working on a secondary mission for the spacecraft.  It seems to be too valuable of a resource to not use and then do some cool stuff.”

It was too soon, he said, to speculate about what that extended mission would entail, although he did point out that the spacecraft has enough power and additional propellant available. As Rocket Lab uses commercial ground stations instead of the DSN to interact with Lunar Photon, he claimed that “communications make or break it.”

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