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NASA struggles to regain control of its $30 million Capstone spacecraft

NASA’s small CAPSTONE spacecraft has run into trouble on its way to the moon and is currently get out of hand.

The US space agency’s $30 million probe, which is about the size of a microwave oven and weighs only 55 pounds, has also been examined. experienced temperature problems and had problems generating power from the solar panels.

Near the end of a major engine fire last Thursday (Sept. 9), CAPSTONE experienced an anomaly that put the probe into a protective “safe mode,” mission team members said.

In an update released this week, Advanced Space — the company managing the project for NASA — described it as a “dynamic operational situation.”

It’s not the first time CAPSTONE has had a problem. In July, the spacecraft came to a standstill shortly after detaching from its orbit around Earth. However, communication was later restored.

The spacecraft was launched in June with the goal of orbiting the moon to prepare for a new lunar space station

It will test the stability of a halo-shaped orbit before it is used by Lunar Gateway, NASA’s planned outpost on the moon.

NASA's small CAPSTONE spacecraft (pictured in an artist's impression) has run into trouble on its way to the moon and is currently spiraling out of control

NASA’s small CAPSTONE spacecraft (pictured in an artist’s impression) has run into trouble on its way to the moon and is currently spiraling out of control

CAPSTONE: IMPORTANT FACTS

Type: CubeSat

Mate: 13 x 13 x 25 inches

Weight: 55 pounds

Track: Near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO)

Start site: Mahia, New Zealand

Launch date: June 13-22, 2022

Lunar Gateway will one day serve as a staging area for landing humans on the moon and possibly as a launching point for missions to Mars.

Ground teams are now trying to stabilize the movement of the small reconnaissance satellite and save the mission.

CAPSTONE reached a distance of more than 950,000 miles (1.53 million km) from Earth on Aug. 26, before gravity began to pull the probe on a course to cross paths with the moon, ahead of a planned insertion burn on Nov. 13. .

Halfway through its journey to Earth’s only natural satellite, the probe fired its miniature hydrazine propulsion system for its third orbit correction maneuver, but NASA said the spacecraft had a problem during or shortly after combustion.

This caused it to tumble, with CAPSTONE’s reaction wheels — which are designed to control orientation — unable to counteract the movement.

Ground stations were then unable to receive meaningful communications from the spacecraft, prompting Advanced Space to declare an operational emergency.

When contact was finally restored about 24 hours later, “mission controllers found that the spacecraft was tumbling, the onboard computer systems were resetting periodically, and that the spacecraft was using more power than it was generating from its solar panels,” NASA said.

Controllers finally managed to stabilize CAPSTONE using NASA’s Deep Space Network, a series of giant radio antennas used to support interplanetary spacecraft missions.

Rapid response enabled by the Deep Space Network support and quick thinking by the Terran Orbital team allowed mission operators to quickly reconfigure the spacecraft’s operational state to stabilize the situation while further evaluating recovery plans. Advanced Space said in an update.

A team of experts is now evaluate next steps.

But without the Deep Space Network, they would have “little, if any, information about the status of the spacecraft,” according to Advanced Space.

NASA added that the silver lining was to keep the probe on course for the moon.

It said in a statement: “CAPSTONE remains in safe mode and is now power positive, meaning it is generating more power from the solar panels than the system is using.

CAPSTONE over the moon North Pole: After arriving on the moon, the spacecraft embarks on a six-month mission to validate a special type of orbit

CAPSTONE over the moon North Pole: After arriving on the moon, the spacecraft embarks on a six-month mission to validate a special type of orbit

CAPSTONE over the moon North Pole: After arriving on the moon, the spacecraft embarks on a six-month mission to validate a special type of orbit

“Navigation data collected after the problem started suggests that the Sept. 8 orbit correction maneuver was complete or nearing completion when the problem occurred.

“This means that the spacecraft will stay on its intended orbit and will stay on course for its nearly rectilinear halo orbit near the moon.”

The US space agency added: “While work is done to diagnose the cause of the problem, the CAPSTONE team is preparing to conduct an evacuation operation to regain control of the spacecraft’s attitude.”

CAPSTONE is an abbreviation for ‘Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment’.

It is unique in that it will travel in an elongated halo-shaped orbit, taking it as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 70,500 miles from the lunar surface.

While it usually takes a spacecraft a few days to reach the moon, CAPSTONE takes much longer because it travels slower and has to travel a longer route to set up for an unusual oval orbit.

The oddly shaped orbit, officially called a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), has never been attempted in space before.

Lunar Gateway, pictured here above the moon in an artist's impression, is described as a 'vital part' of NASA's Artemis program

Lunar Gateway, pictured here above the moon in an artist's impression, is described as a 'vital part' of NASA's Artemis program

Lunar Gateway, pictured here above the moon in an artist’s impression, is described as a ‘vital part’ of NASA’s Artemis program

The trajectory of the orbit is at a precise equilibrium point in the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Moon, meaning less energy is consumed.

CAPSTONE will orbit the moon for at least six months to understand “the characteristics of the orbit,” according to NASA.

The space agency said: “It will validate the power and propulsion requirements to maintain its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, reducing logistical uncertainties.

“It will also demonstrate the reliability of innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solutions, as well as communication capabilities with Earth.”

First parts for the Lunar Gateway won’t be launched until November 2024 at the earliest, giving NASA plenty of time to review CAPSTONE’s results, if the mission is successful.

The Lunar Gateway, described as an “essential part of NASA’s Artemis program, will be a small space station that orbits the moon and will act as a “multi-purpose outpost.”

NASA’S MOON GATE: AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE ARTEMIS PROGRAM

NASA is working on a project to build the first lunar space station, codenamed Lunar Gateway, as part of a long-term project to send humans to Mars.

The crew-maintained spaceport will orbit the moon and serve as a “gateway to deep space and the lunar surface,” according to NASA.

The station’s first modules can be delivered as early as 2024.

An international lunar exploration base for humans and robots and a stopover for spacecraft is a key contender to succeed the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS), the world’s largest space project to date.

Pictured: A diagram of the proposed Lunar Gateway space station

Pictured: A diagram of the proposed Lunar Gateway space station

Pictured: A diagram of the proposed Lunar Gateway space station

NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions aim to send the first manned mission to the moon since 1972 “no sooner than 2025.”

This was originally set to be in 2024, but costs and lawsuits from Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin forced NASA to postpone it for a year.

Ultimately, NASA aims to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will discover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advances and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.