It's been a wild few days for NASA's CAPSTONE mission. Following the lunar satellite's successful launch from Rocket Lab's site on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, ground control lost contact with the spacecraft shortly after it escaped Earth's gravity well and separated from its Electron rocket carrier on Monday. But after nearly a full day in the dark, NASA announced on Wednesday that its engineers have managed to reopen a line to the 55-pound satellite.
While the situation was concerning, NASA had accounted for just such a possibility. "If needed, the mission has enough fuel to delay the initial post-separation trajectory correction maneuver for several days," a NASA spokesperson told Space.com on Monday.
Dubbed, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), this spacecraft had spent nearly a week orbiting the planet in order to build up enough momentum to sling it on a four-month, trans-lunar injection (TLI) route over to the moon. Once the CAPSTONE arrives on November 13th, it will follow the planned Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit of the forthcoming Lunar Gateway in order to verify the stability of the path.
"Specifically, it will validate the power and propulsion requirements for maintaining its orbit as predicted by NASA’s models, reducing logistical uncertainties," NASA described in an April blog post. "The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days, requiring less propulsion capability for spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface than other circular orbits."
The Gateway, once it launches in 2024, will act as a staging platform first for the larger Artemis mission and lunar colonization efforts, then forays further out into the solar system with an eye on eventually settling Mars. NASA plans to follow this launch with that of the Orion spacecraft — it's launch window spanning August 23rd to September 6th — which will evaluate the impacts a trans-lunar trip might have on astronaut physiology.