This probe, which is essential for the smooth running of the Artemis program, has finally come out of the coma. Phew!
On June 28, NASA finally launched Capstone, the very first spacecraft to take off specifically as part of the Artemis program. This cubesat left to play the role of scout; it is he who will pave the way for the three missions which should eventually bring humans back to the Moon within a few years… at least, if all goes well. Because the machine has already given NASA engineers a huge fright.
Capstone was put into orbit using a Photon capsule, itself mounted on a RocketLab Electron launch vehicle. Once stripped of the rocket body, the capsule’s small engine gradually expanded its orbit over a few days; a step that allowed it to adjust its trajectory to take advantage of an ideal transfer window to our satellite.
A chilling silence for engineers
After a final strategic boost, Capstone left its case to begin its journey to the Moon. And that’s when the probe gave a huge fright to the teams of Advanced Space, which manages the mission on behalf of NASA. When she was due to give news for the third time, she is remained silent and completely stopped responding to requests from ground crews.
The timing was anything but ideal. Because two days later, on July 6, Capstone was to perform the first corrective maneuver to refine its approach to the Moon. However, at this date, the probe was still catatonic.
This means that this strategically planned maneuver to save fuel had to be postponed. In this situation, time is therefore running out: the later Capstone wakes up, the more it deviates from the optimal trajectory. She should then spend more fuel to correct its approach, which reduces the total life of the mission accordingly.
The probe is fine, but the mystery remains
This situation forced the engineers to launch an emergency procedure to try to restore contact. Luckily, they finally succeeded on June 6 after a week of absolute anguish. ” We have restored communication with Capstone “, announced Advanced Space on Twitter. “The probe appears to be healthy,” the company said.
The good news is that Capstone came out of the coma early enough to perform this first correction in good conditions, without having to spend too much fuel. She is therefore well on her way to reaching her final destination without incident.
The bad news is that as it stands, Advanced Space and NASA have still not indicated the exact origin of this failure. Certainly, they promise “more details” very soon. But this relative silence suggests that gray areas still remain… which leaves the door open to new shortcomings.
A small company with big responsibilities
A concerning Sword of Damocles, knowing the central role of Capstone in the Artemis program. Indeed, it is a scout who must open the way to the future Lunar Gateway.
This is a new kind of space station that will serve as a lunar outpost. This infrastructure will provide an operational base that will greatly facilitate the stay of astronauts departing for the Moon and beyond, as well as all the logistics related to these missions.
This advanced base will be parked in an exotic orbit (see our article) where no one has yet installed a space vehicle. The models indicate that it should be stable. But there is no question of tossing a coin for such an ambitious programme. Capstone is therefore responsible for demonstrating the stability of this very special orbit. He will also collect a whole lot of data which will be very useful for preparing the Artemis 2 and 3 missions.
So we can be relieved that Capstone is communicating again. Because if the Artemis I mission would probably not have been impacted, it is another story for Artemis 2 and 3. The smooth running of these two missions, which must respectively return humans to orbit and then to the surface of the Moon, largely depends on the results that will be reported by the probe.
If NASA had lost Capstone, Artemis 2 and 3 would certainly have suffered from another major setback. It is therefore to be hoped that this malfunction was only a one-time episode, and not the first manifestation of a chronic problem which could put this crucial mission in danger.