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NASA’s lunar satellite CAPSTONE experiences error, is in safe mode

An issue has occurred with NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite, currently on its way to orbit around the moon. The satellite is now in safe mode while NASA teams work to figure out the issue and find a solution.

As part of NASA’s Artemis project to return humans to the moon, the agency is working on various bits of lunar architecture to support missions in the long term. One major plan is to construct a space station in orbit around the moon called Gateway. The idea is to place this space station into a new orbit called a near rectilinear halo orbit, which uses little fuel and would bring the station close to the moon at some times and have it further away at other times. Because this orbit is theoretical and has not been used before, the CAPSTONE satellite (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) was launched on June 28 this year to test out the orbit.

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To enter the orbit, scheduled for November 13, 2022, the satellite has to perform a series of trajectory correction maneuvers. The satellite performed its latest maneuver on Thursday, September 8, after which an unknown issue caused the satellite to enter safe mode. “CAPSTONE mission controllers have since obtained telemetry confirming that an issue put the spacecraft in safe mode near the end of the maneuver,” NASA wrote in an update. “The CAPSTONE mission team has good knowledge of the state and status of the spacecraft. 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.”

This is the second issue that has beset the CAPSTONE satellite. In July this year, shortly after launch, an anomaly caused NASA to lose touch with CAPSTONE. Communications with the satellite were re-established after a few days. In a review following the issue, NASA announced that the issue was caused by an improperly formatted command sent to the satellite’s radio system, compounded by a software fault that did not reboot the radio immediately.

The latest issue is different from this first issue as it involves safe mode — a protective mode that the satellite enters to protect itself from potential damage — rather than being a communications issue.

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