NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar probe has more problems than we thought

Artist's rendering of CAPSTONE.

Artist’s rendering of CAPSTONE.
Image: Nasa

Controllers with the CAPSTONE mission are attempt to regain control of the Probe bound to the Moon, which is currently collapsing, is experiencing temperature issues and is unable to use its solar panels to fully recharge its batteries.

In a update released on Monday, Advanced Space described it as a “dynamic operating situation.” The company is managing the project for NASA, in which the 55-pound (25-kilogram) cubesat will assess a single halo orbit around the Moon before a lunar space station. CAPSTONEabbreviation for Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, spear on June 28 and is in the middle of a four-month journey to the Moon.

The the problem started either during or after the third course correction maneuver (TCM-3) on 8 September. according at NASA.

CAPSTONE must make seven course corrections to reach its predicted halo orbit around the Moon.  The recent anomaly occurred during or after the third trajectory maneuver on September 8.

CAPSTONE must perform seven course corrections to achieve its intended halo orbit around the Moon. The recent anomaly occurred during or after the third trajectory maneuver on September 8.
Chart: Advanced Space

Several heading corrections are necessary to move the probe towards its predicted lunar orbit, known as the Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO), which CAPSTONE is assumed to reach November 13. CAPSTONE reached apogee – its farthest point from Earth – 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 restored about 24 hours later, “mission controllers discovered that the spacecraft was collapsing, onboard computer systems were periodically resetting, and the spacecraft was using more power than it needed to. produced from its solar panels,” NASA said.

Fortunately, the controllers were able to stabilize the spacecraft using NASA’s Deep Space Network, an array of giant radio antennas used to support interplanetary spacecraft missions. “The rapid response enabled by the support of the Deep Space Network and the quick thinking of the Terran Orbital team allowed mission operators to quickly reconfigure the operational state of the spacecraft to stabilize the situation while recovery plans could be evaluated further”, according to a Advanced Space Update. A recovery team made up of experts from NASA, Advanced Space, Terran Orbital (the designer and manufacturer of CAPSTONE) and Stellar Exploration (the supplier of CAPSTONE’s propulsion system) is currently evaluating the next steps. Without the Deep Space Network, the team “would have little to no information about the state of the spacecraft,” according to Advanced Space. That said, teams are still hampered by incomplete information.

The good news is that CAPSTONE has been placed in stable condition. It’s still tumbling and in safe mode, but it’s now generating more power than it’s using. The cubesat is currently spinning in such a way that its solar panels are partially illuminated, resulting in weak transmissions from its low-gain antennas. Importantly, the probe has successfully completed its third trajectory correction maneuver, which means it is still on course towards 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 several subsystems, including the propulsion system. The team also prepares to bring down the spacecraft in an attempt to regain control of its orientation. There is good reason to believe that this procedure will work, as a similar disassembly operation was performed in July after CAPSTONE separated from the upper stage of the Electron rocket.

Assuming CAPSTONE can be removed from its fall, controllers will then aim the solar panels to fully recharge the probe’s batteries, allowing the mission to continue as planned. But as Advanced Space grimly noted: “Many details remain unknown as to the cause of the anomaly and significant risks continue to be analyzed.” CAPSTONE is not off the hook, but there are reasons for optimism.

CAPSTONE is a precursor mission for the next Artemis program, in which NASA seeks a permanent and sustainable return to the lunar environment. To support the crews of Artemis, NASA and its international partners are seeking to place a space station, called Gateway, into the gravitationally stable halo orbit. No probe has ever worked in NHRO, hence the importance of the CAPSTONE reconnaissance mission.

After: Blue Origin Booster suffers from a fiery anomaly during an uncrewed suborbital launch.

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