Engineers Scramble As Satellite Goes Silent


NASA Engineers went into extreme anxiety mode when their latest and greatest CAPSTONE satellite stopped talking to them. Everything seemed to be going perfect for the photon drive spacecraft, right up to the moment of abrupt failure. Instantly, they started scrambling for a solution. Thankfully, on Wednesday, they were able to start breathing again when their microwave-size cubesat came back online. Details, they promise, will follow soon.

Satellite goes disappointingly dark

Engineers at Advance Space, the Colorado-based company operating the CAPSTONE project for NASA, were extremely disappointed to lose contact with their important new satellite on Monday, July 4. They weren’t sure if their multi-million dollar advanced science project had become a 55-pound hunk of space debris. They kept their fingers crossed that it would turn out to be something simple and easy to fix. We still aren’t sure if it came back on it’s own or whether it was a software patch from the ground. Whatever it was turned out to be successful.

An update provided just before submission notes: “Both the agency and the company said the root cause of the communications malfunction remains under investigation. After troubleshooting, controllers received a signal from the spacecraft at 9:26 a.m. Eastern and full telemetry from it nearly an hour later, confirming that the spacecraft was in good condition.” It further explains: “‘Through the work over the last day, the team has high confidence that the issue has been cleared and through changes to the configuration and operations it will not happen again,’ Advanced Space said in a statement about the spacecraft’s status. NASA, in its own statement, said the loss of contact ‘was triggered during commissioning activities of the communications system’ based on ground-based testing.

We have re-established communications with CAPSTONE. The spacecraft is looking happy and healthy. More details to come,” Advanced Space tweeted Wednesday.

Cubesats are off the shelf satellite configuration boxes which can be customized for whatever task they need to perform. This one was shipped to Earth orbit by Rocket Lab on one of their Electron booster rockets. That part worked just great.

On June 28, it reached orbit “then spent a week spiraling farther and farther away from our planet via occasional Photon engine burns.” The final kick pushed it over the gravity hump.

That’s when the CAPSTONE satellite module separated from the second stage “spacecraft bus,” to coast gradually into it’s eventual lunar orbit. Photon engines were once to be found only in the pages of science fiction.

Several big milestones

Even when the satellite wasn’t talking and they weren’t sure if it had been captured by aliens or hit by cosmic rays or something, the engineers were patting themselves on the back for “several other big milestones in quick succession.

The craft “deployed its solar arrays as planned.” That’s a tricky part where all sorts of things can go wrong. Then, they had to get the onboard propulsion system ready for “its first engine burn.”

CAPSTONE radioed back to the mission team twice through “NASA’s Deep Space Network shortly after separation, but it then went dark, for reasons that remain mysterious.

As engineers scrambled to regain communication, they had to put a course correction burn on hold. They explain that on this run they have more time to adjust because their satellite is basically sailing to the moon. As long as the correction gets made in a few days, they’re fine. It’s not expected to reach it’s destination until November 13.

Once it gets there, assuming it’s still talking, it’s mission is to occupy a “near rectilinear halo orbit around the moon.” That’s a highly egg shaped path and it’s the same one NASA picked for the planned “Gateway” space station. Fans of Frederik Pohl chuckle over the name every time they hear it.

This satellite is important because “no spacecraft has ever occupied a lunar NRHO, and CAPSTONE is tasked with verifying its stability for Gateway, which is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program of moon exploration.

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