Houston, we have a problem: the Capstone nanosatellite is derailed

A new malfunction has been detected in the Capstone nanosatellite at the end of a maneuver. The machine, en route to the Moon, must test the orbit that the future lunar station will use.

Decidedly, the journey of the Capstone nanosatellite to the Moon is not easy. Leaving Earth at the end of June 2022, NASA’s exploratory spacecraft has been suffering from a new failure for a few days. This is the second time that the little machine has encountered a problem. There had already been a communication problem with Capstone at the beginning of July, fortunately resolved since.

The incident was the subject of a communication from the American space agency on September 10, describing abnormal behavior at the end of a planned maneuver consisting in correcting the trajectory of Capstone. This flight adjustment, which occurred on the 8th, caused the craft to switch into a safety mode for an unknown reason. Communications are working, after a brief interruption.

The nanosatellite still follows the correct route to the Moon

A Nasa update on September 12 warns that Capstone is still in this safe mode and that options to return the spacecraft to its normal state are being evaluated. The vehicle is well supplied with energy thanks to its solar panels. Previously, there was a concern for consumption, which was more than he could get.

The good news, despite the circumstances, is that the nanosatellite remains on the path it must take to reach the Moon. As the problem started towards the end of his manoeuvre, there is no obvious drift problem in relation to the trajectory calculated by the ground crews. Capstone has already completed four other course corrections before.

It really is a very small satellite, as you can see in this image. // Source: NASA/Dominic Hart

To date, the origin of the glitches affecting Capstone has not been identified. At the same time, NASA is trying to regain full control of the craft, in particular to modify its orientation. The objective here is to expose its solar panels more directly to the Sun to recharge its batteries as much as possible and compensate for the loss of energy following an operation which should soon be attempted.

We should obviously not expect an immediate resolution of the problem, because NASA mentions a schedule of a few days to evaluate and apply these recovery operations.

Capstone, acronym for ” Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment “, serves as a sort of scout for NASA to experiment with a particular orbit around the Moon – it is called a halo orbit (NRHO for Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit). It is in this orbit that the future lunar station will be placed.

Capstone is the first concrete milestone of the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the Moon within the next decade. But everyone is especially waiting for Artemis I, which will be the baptism of fire for the new heavy launcher SLS (Space Launch System). The vehicle will be uninhabited. However, he is currently having some difficulty getting ready for the flight.

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The Space Launch System.  // Source: NASA/Sam Lott (cropped photo)

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