NASA loses contact with New Zealand-launched Capstone satellite

Earth from the moon
Responsibility has been passed from Rocket Lab to two US private companies. Photo credit: Getty Images

Just over a day after NASA's Capstone-carrying spacecraft left Earth's gravity field to head towards the moon, the Rocket Lab-launched ship has stopped communicating.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) satellite aboard the Photon spacecraft was launched from Aotearoa's Māhia Peninsula on June 28. 

Rocket Lab, founded by Kiwi Peter Beck, hailed the success of the mission on Tuesday, with the responsibility passing to Terran Orbital and Advanced Space to manage the flight going forward - two US-based private companies.

An update on NASA's Artemis blog, which is charting the space agency's attempts to return astronauts to the lunar surface, confirmed an issue.

"Following successful deployment and start of spacecraft commissioning on July 4, the Capstone spacecraft experienced communications issues while in contact with the Deep Space Network," the blog said.

"The spacecraft team is working to understand the cause and re-establish contact."

NASA said the team has good trajectory data for the spacecraft allowing it to predict its future path.

"If needed, the mission has enough fuel to delay the initial post separation trajectory correction manoeuvre for several days. Additional updates will be provided as soon as possible."

Capstone is being used to test the orbit for Gateway, a vital component of the Artemis program, part of which is dedicated to setting up a long-term base on the moon.

The Gateway will orbit the moon, providing essential support for humans on the lunar surface and then serving as a staging point for further exploration to Mars and beyond.

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab has announced its next two launches will be missions for the US Government's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Rocket Lab is scheduled to deploy satellites to space for the NRO within 10 days of each other, starting no earlier than July 12.

The missions will carry national security payloads designed, built, and operated by the NRO in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence and will provide critical information to government agencies and decision makers "monitoring international issues".

"Space plays such a critical role in providing immediate insights and informing time-sensitive decisions, so a responsive, modern approach accessing orbit is crucial," founder Beck said.

"This is what we've established with Electron and multiple launch sites – reliable rockets and multiple pads at the ready to support the national security community's responsive space needs.

"Our quick turnaround for these two national security missions will be just the latest demonstration of our responsive space capability, and we're honoured to be a trusted mission partner to the NRO once again."