The first NASA-funded commercial mission to send a robotic spacecraft to the lunar surface likely won’t be able to get there.
The lunar lander, named Peregrine and built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, encountered problems shortly after liftoff Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch rocket, of a completely new design called Vulcan, successfully launched Peregrine. On your journey.
But a failure in the lander’s propulsion system caused it to run out of propellant and potentially end the mission’s original lunar ambitions.
“The team is working to try to stabilize the damage, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can obtain.” Astrobotic said in a statement. “We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be possible at this time.”
The failure calls into question NASA’s strategy of relying on private companies, mostly small startups, to bring science experiments to the lunar surface. Those scientific studies are part of preparations before sending astronauts back to the Moon under the space agency’s Artemis program.
“Every success and failure are opportunities to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for Exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
Peregrine was the first mission to land under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS. Since the announcement of CLPS in 2018, NASA officials have said that they are willing to take more risk in exchange for lower costs and that they expect that few missions will fail.
Thomas Zurbuchen, who was Associate Administrator for Science at NASA at the time, made a hockey analogy – each CLPS mission is like a shot on target, and if the cost is lower, there will be more shots on target, even if not all shots score. do. ,
This is in contrast to the Moon program of the 1960s, before which NASA built a series of its own robotic lunar landers. But that approach is expensive, and this time NASA wanted to encourage private industry to come up with its own solution that would be cheaper and could create a new market for universities, businesses and space agencies in other countries that want payloads. Want to send. moon.
For the Peregrine mission, NASA was the primary customer, paying Astrobotic $108 million to transport the five experiments. The mission also carried several other payloads, including a small rover built by Carnegie Mellon University students, experiments and souvenirs for the German and Mexican space agencies.
Still, getting to the Moon on a low budget has proven more difficult than many people anticipated.
The Peregrine spacecraft launched at 2:18 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday. Fifty minutes later, it was successfully launched into highly elliptical Earth orbit. All its systems started successfully. To allow time to diagnose any problems, Astrobotic designed the trajectory so that the spacecraft would make one and a half revolutions around Earth before entering orbit around the Moon, approximately two and a half weeks after launch.
However, a few hours after the launch, Astrobotic reports on social media service X The spacecraft was having trouble pointing its solar panels toward the Sun to generate power, pointing to a possible malfunction in the propulsion system.
a makeshift device Success achieved in redirecting solar panels Back towards the sun, so the battery can charge. However, the loss of propellant meant that the objective of landing on the Moon could not be achieved.
Astrobotic was the third private entity to attempt to send a spacecraft to the lunar surface, and is probably the third to fail.
In 2019, Beresheet, a spacecraft built by the Israeli non-profit company SpaceIL, crashed when its engine inadvertently shut down while the spacecraft was still high above the surface.
Last year, a lander sent by private Japanese firm iSpace miscalculated its altitude due to a software glitch and then disintegrated after running out of fuel.
Astrobotic, SpaceIL, and iSpace all emerged from teams that sought to win the $20 million grand prize in the Google Lunar X Prize competition for the first private venture to reach the Moon’s surface. The competition, which was announced with much fanfare in 2007, became quiet in 2018 without any team finding a place.
Astrobotic and iSpace sought investors who believed that sending experiments and other payloads to the Moon could become a profitable business, while SpaceIL needed Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur, and other backers to complete Beresheet and launch it. Received continuous funding from.
The next CLPS mission, by Houston’s Intuitive Machines, is expected to launch in mid-February, headed for a region near the moon’s south pole.
Astrobotic has a contract for a second mission, using a larger lander called Griffin that will carry NASA’s VIPER robotic rover to explore a shadowed crater on the moon’s south pole. NASA may now reconsider that mission after Peregrine’s failure.
Government space agencies have also had mixed results. An Indian lander crashed in 2019, but a repeat attempt last year was successful. Luna-25, the first Russian spacecraft to visit the Moon since the 1970s, crashed last year.
The only country with an unblemished lunar record this century is China, which has successfully landed three robotic spacecraft on the Moon since 2013. It is expected to launch a fourth robotic spacecraft to the far side of the Moon later this year. JAXA, the Japanese government space agency, also plans to land a small, experimental lunar rover on the surface on January 20.
Peregrine’s failure has for now sidelined protests from Navajo Nation leaders.
Celestis, a company that memorializes people by sending some of their ashes or DNA into space, and another company that provides similar services, Elysium Space, had payloads on astrobotic spacecraft. In a letter to NASA and the United States Department of Transportation, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren asked for the launch to be delayed, as many Native Americans consider the Moon sacred.
Mr. Nygren wrote, “The act of depositing human remains and other materials on the Moon, which could be considered as sacrifices elsewhere, is tantamount to desecrating this sacred place.”