NASA Spacecraft Sent to Unexplored Orbit for Moon Outpost Goes Silent

NASA has lost contact with CAPSTONE, a spacecraft sent to an unexplored orbit as a test for an outpost around the Moon called the Gateway.
NASA Spacecraft Sent to Unexplored Orbit for Moon Outpost Goes Silent
NASA rendering of the future Gateway lunar outpost. Image: NASA Johnson

Humans are going back to the Moon, but not everything is going according to plan. NASA announced on Tuesday that a small spacecraft launched last month to an unexplored orbit as a test for a future lunar outpost has gone silent. 

CAPSTONE is a microwave-sized satellite that was launched from New Zealand on June 6, destined to become the first spacecraft to explore the near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), which is an odd elongated orbit around the Moon. The orbit has significance for the Artemis program—NASA's project to return humans to the moon's surface this decade. Astronauts will be staying on the lunar surface for weeks at a time (not merely days) and so NASA wants to establish a Gateway as a kind of orbital waystation for missions. NRHO is a perfect location for such a base. 

“With the NRHO, from the Earth’s surface, you can see the entire orbital path of soon-to-be CAPSTONE, and eventually Gateway,” Justin Treptow, NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) deputy program executive in the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, previously told Motherboard. “You can have uninterrupted comms with a spacecraft in that orbit because you have constant unobstructed views of it as it's going around the Moon. That’s pretty advantageous if you're doing a mission out there supporting astronauts.” 

Now, however, CAPSTONE has run into problems. According to a NASA blog, after a successful deployment on July 4, the spacecraft “experienced communications issues while in contact with the Deep Space Network,” which is a global network of Earth-based communication facilities. According to the blog, NASA is attempting to determine the cause of the issue and re-establish contact with the craft. 

There is some good news, though: NASA is very sure of the location of the spacecraft. "The team has good trajectory data for the spacecraft based on the first full and second partial ground station pass with the Deep Space Network," the announcement said, adding that the mission has enough fuel to delay an initial trajectory correction manoeuvre for a few days.