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NASA’s Moonbound CAPSTONE Probe Is Stuck in Safe Mode

Artist’s depiction of CAPSTONE.

Artist’s depiction of CAPSTONE.
Image: NASA

NASA’s CAPSTONE probe has nearly completed its four-month-long journey to the Moon, where it will test a unique halo orbit in preparation for a future space station. Late last week, however, as the probe was performing a course correction maneuver, CAPSTONE entered into safe mode from which it has yet to emerge.

CAPSTONE entered into safe mode during the evening of Thursday, September 8, just as the probe was completing a trajectory correction maneuver. CAPSTONE’s mission team “has good knowledge of the state and status of the spacecraft,” NASA said in a painfully brief statement. “The mission operations team is in contact with the spacecraft and working towards a solution with support from the Deep Space Network. Additional updates will be provided as available.” No further updates have been provided since the statement was published on September 10.

“The mission operations team is in contact with the vehicle and working to resolve the anomaly,” Advanced Space, the NASA-funded company that owns and operates the probe, said in a statement. “As resolution efforts progress, more updates will be provided. The spacecraft remains on its planned course to the Moon.”

CAPSTONE, or Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, launched to space on June 28 aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. The 55-pound (25-pound) cubesat is on a pathfinder mission for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to build a sustained human presence at and around the Moon.

Once at the Moon, the NASA-funded CAPSTONE will enter into a near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO)—a fuel-efficient orbit that takes advantage of neutral gravity points produced by the Earth and Moon. It’s within this gravitationally stable orbit that NASA and its partners are planning to build a lunar space station called Gateway. CAPSTONE, built and designed by Terran Orbital, will serve as an advanced scout to confirm theoretical models about this unique halo orbit.

The mission got off to a rocky start when a communication issue prevented mission controllers from contacting the probe in early July. The issue was the result of an improperly formatted command, which served to knock out CAPSTONE’s radio. Naturally, a reboot of the system resolved the issue. With communications restored, the team was able to perform the probe’s first correction maneuver.

On August 26, CAPSTONE reached its farthest point from Earth, or apogee, reaching a distance of 951,908 miles (1.53 million kilometers). CAPSTONE is expected to enter into NRHO on November 13, 2022. At least that’s the plan. Fingers are crossed that NASA and Advanced Space will resolve this latest issue with the probe, and that this important mission will be able to continue.

More: NASA’s Artemis Moon Landing Program: Launches, Timeline, and More.

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