The worn-out spacecraft went silent, spiraling out of control and into fatigue as power drained from its solar limbs.
Engineers reluctantly raised the alarm for the CAPSTONE mission to the moon. NASA granted the scientists special clearance to make a 1-million-mile long-distance call to the tiny spacecraft via the Deep Space Network, a system of three gigantic radio dishes on Earth. Their only hope was in it.
A spacecraft that resembled a winged microwave oven, Capstone, connected with an antenna the size of a football field and resumed communication. Its message was loud and obvious over a wide range of data points: It won't be much longer for me now; I'm dying.
"Without power, ugh, I even get choked up over it, said Jeff Parker of Advanced Space, whose voice trembled while describing the moment to Mashable. The spacecraft was freezing without power."
"The spacecraft was freezing without power."
Few people are aware of the story of the first real mission of Artemis, NASA's new moon program, and how it survived and accomplished an extraordinary achievement two months after crawling back from the brink of extinction in September 2022.
By the way, this wasn't Artemis I, which launched in November from the same renowned Florida coastline that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon. No, this rocket launched 8,000 miles and four months earlier from a sparsely populated headland in the southwest Pacific, where periodically grazing sheep and cattle would raise their snouts to watch a rocket graze the sky.
The moon mission known as CAPSTONE [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment] launched atop a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from Mahia, New Zealand, on June 28, 2022.
Its purpose was to explore a lunar orbit that had never been visited by another spacecraft. That route is essential to NASA's ambitious goal to launch Artemis, a crewed space station, in 2024. Astronauts would use the outpost, to be known as Gateway, as a base when they traveled back and forth to the moon's surface.
In a change from routine, NASA does not own or control this little 55-pound vessel. In order to reduce costs and reach the launch pad more quickly, the agency decided to collaborate with private businesses on the mission. Built by Terran Orbital, the mission is owned and operated by Advanced Space from Westminster, Colorado, and launched into orbit by Rocket Lab. A flagship mission like Artemis I would have cost more than US$4 billion, while the entire effort only cost US$30 million from soup to nuts.
The moon orbit of Gateway
A near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), which it was designed to pave, resembles a necklace strung from the moon and wrapping around its north and south poles. Imagine a tight hug, where the necklace would clasp, at a height of roughly 1,000 miles above the moon, and a deep scoop, 40,000 miles deep and distant from the moon, at its base. The top flyby is like getting a weekly moon gravity boost. Any spacecraft traveling along the route would face Earth continually throughout, enabling continuous contact.
In a statement to reporters last year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson stated, "That's a novel maneuver that we have to undertake that we've never done before." "Also keep in mind that Apollo entered equatorial orbit. This one will orbit the poles."
Before deciding that this orbit would be the most suitable for a future space station, scientists looked at a wide range of possible orbits. For instance, a low-lunar orbit would circle the moon very closely. The base would be placed closer to the surface in this case, but much more fuel would be needed to overcome the gravity of the moon. On the other hand, a far-off retrograde orbit would be more stable and fuel-efficient but less practical for reaching the earth. The Goldilocks solution, which combines the advantages of both, is the orbit that Gateway has recommended.