As solar power drained from its solar limbs, the exhausted starship went silent and spun out of control, exhausted.
Engineers reluctantly sounded the alarm for the CAPSTONE mission to the moon. NASA granted the researchers special permission to use the Deep Space Network, a system of three large radio dishes on Earth, to place a long-distance call of 1 million miles to the little spacecraft. It was their final chance.
Connecting to an antenna the size of a football field, Capstone, a spacecraft resembling a microwave oven with wings, resumed communication. And in so many data points, its message was unmistakable: I don't have long to live now; I'm dying.
"Without power," said Jeff Parker of Advanced Space, whose voice cracked as he recounted the incident to Mashable, "even I feel emotional about it. Without electricity, the spaceship became frozen."
Without electricity, the spacecraft became icy.
Few are aware of the story of the first actual mission of Artemis, NASA's new moon program, and how it crept back from the brink of death in September 2022, only to live and accomplish an astounding achievement in the next two months.
This was not Artemis I, the new passenger spaceship's maiden trip in November from the same famed Florida coast that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon. This one launched four months earlier, 8,000 miles distant, on a thinly inhabited headland in the southwestern Pacific, where grazing sheep and cattle may periodically raise their snouts to watch a rocket brush the sky.
CAPSTONE [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment] [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment] — a lunar mission with a tiny spacecraft with the same name — was launched on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from Mahia, New Zealand, on June 28, 2022.
Its purpose was to scout a lunar orbit that no other spacecraft had ever flown. This approach is essential to NASA's ambitious ambition to place a manned space station on the moon for Artemis by 2024 or so. Gateway would serve as a home base for astronauts traveling to and from the surface of the moon.
In a departure from the norm, NASA does not own or operate this 55-pound vessel. The government chose to collaborate with private enterprises on the mission in order to reduce costs and expedite launch. Advanced Space owns and operates the project from Westminster, Colorado, while Rocket Lab launched it into space. The total cost of the endeavor was $30 million, a trifle compared to the $4 billion spent on a flagship mission such as Artemis I.
Gateway's moon-orbiting orbit
Its intended path, a near-rectilinear halo orbit [NRHO], resembles a necklace draped around the moon's north and south poles. Imagine a close embrace where the necklace clasps, approximately 1,000 miles above the lunar surface, followed by a deep 40,000-mile scoop away from the moon. The flyover at the top is equivalent to receiving a weekly gravity boost from the moon. Any spacecraft on the route would maintain a constant orientation toward Earth, allowing for constant contact.
Last year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson told reporters, "This is a brand-new maneuver that we've never attempted before." "Remember that Apollo entered equatorial orbit. This one is destined towards polar orbit."
Before deciding that this orbit was the best fit for a future space station, scientists studied a variety of prospective orbits. For instance, a low-lunar orbit would circle very near to the moon's surface. This would bring the base closer to the ground, but would necessitate significantly more fuel to fight the moon's gravity. In contrast, a distant retrograde orbit would be more stable and use less fuel, but ground access would be more difficult. The suggested orbit for Gateway is the Goldilocks option, incorporating the advantages of both.