Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, the first private moon lander contracted by NASA, is set to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on January 18th after failing to reach the moon. The $108 million mission launched in late 2023 but suffered critical failures soon after that have doomed the spacecraft.
Background on Peregrine Mission
The Peregrine lander was developed by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, one of the companies contracted by NASA to deliver scientific payloads to the moon’s surface as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. CLPS aims to spur growth of the commercial space sector while helping NASA achieve its exploration goals by contracting private companies to carry instruments and technology demonstrations to the moon.
Peregrine was slated to be the first American spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. The lander carried 11 payloads from NASA and 5 other countries, along with a time capsule containing photos, books, and even DNA from famous figures like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
Peregrine launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in November 2023. The initial launch and trans-lunar injection burn went smoothly, putting Peregrine on course for a soft landing in the moon’s Lacus Mortis region on December 15th.
Critical Failures Doom Lander Mission
However, just days after launch the mission began experiencing serious issues. A collision avoidance system failure on November 19th left Peregrine drifting off course with no way to correct its trajectory. Subsequent investigation suggested a software glitch had disabled multiple attitude control thrusters.
With Peregrine unable to properly orient itself or make course corrections, Astrobotic and NASA worked desperately to regain control of the spacecraft. But by December 5th, with the lander too far off course to salvage the mission, officials declared Peregrine “non-recoverable” and conceded it would miss the moon entirely.
Rather than have the dead spacecraft drift indefinitely in space, Astrobotic opted to command Peregrine into a trajectory that will send it back towards Earth to burn up in the atmosphere on January 18th. This controlled destructive reentry will ensure the lander doesn’t risk colliding with and damaging other spacecraft.
“This was a very ambitious first lunar landing attempt for Astrobotic. It’s unfortunate what happened, but we will learn from this experience.” – Dr. Danielle Wood, director of Space Enabled Research Group at MIT
Payloads and Ashes Destined to Be Destroyed
Because Peregrine never successfully landed, none of its science payload data will be recovered. NASA instruments designed to study lunar radiation, measure ground penetrating radar, and more will all be incinerated when the lander breaks up on reentry next week.
Additionally, celebrity archives onboard containing DNA, photos, and ashes of iconic figures will be roasted in Earth’s upper atmosphere along with the rest of Peregrine. This includes ashes of actor James Doohan who played “Scotty” on Star Trek and samples of President John F. Kennedy’s hair.
A full manifest of Peregrine’s payloads now doomed for destruction:
|Tipping Point Polar Resources
|Study water distribution in lunar craters
|Next-Gen Lunar Retroreflectors
|Precisely measure distance between Earth and Moon over time
|Characterize radiation environment
|Demonstrate small rover that can explore lunar pits and caves
|Sample lunar regolith in support of space resource utilization
|Provide ground-penetrating radar profiles down to 10 meter depth
|NASA Atmospheric and Space Technology Directorate
|Measure subsurface thermophysical properties
|DLR (Germany) Institute of Space Systems
|Test lunar elevator concept
|University of Salento (Italy)
|Perform neutron spectrometry of surface/subsurface composition
|Part Time Scientists (Germany)
|Capture HD video and images during descent and landing
|DLR (Germany) Institute of Space Systems
|Test lunar elevator concept
|Contains human cremains, DNA samples, photos, seed specimens and mementos
The loss of these payloads represents a major setback for NASA’s lunar exploration plans as well as the companies that worked for years developing the instruments and rovers. Additionally, families who paid to have their loved one’s ashes sent to the moon will no longer have that memorial.
Future Commercial Moon Landing Attempts Still Planned
While the failure of Peregrine’s inaugural CLPS flight is disheartening, both NASA and its commercial partners emphasize that challenges are to be expected when expanding technological frontiers. The lessons learned from this mishap will be applied towards improving reliability and redundancy for upcoming commercial moon lander designs.
Astrobotic itself still has a second CLPS contract awarded for its Griffin lander planned to launch in 2025. Other companies like Intuitive Machines and ispace still have lunar landing missions in development for NASA as well.
“There is no guarantee of success with challenging space missions, but we will persevere. Our commercial partners continue working toward landing technologies that will carry NASA instruments to the moon’s surface.” – Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development
So while Peregrine will soon be erased from space in a blaze of plasma, the forward march towards a permanent return to the Moon continues unabated. Dozens more lunar lander missions from both NASA and private companies are planned this decade, each building critical experience and infrastructure to enable sustainable lunar exploration.
Impact on NASA’s Lunar Ambitions
The loss of the Peregrine lander and its NASA science instruments is a blow to Space Policy Directive 1, the Trump administration directive that made returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024 a priority.
With Peregrine meeting a fiery end, NASA is left without crucial radiation environment data and ground penetration measurements that could have helped identify safe landing sites for eventual crewed Artemis missions to the lunar surface. These measurements might now have to be gathered by robotic precursor missions launched in the next year or two.
Additionally, the small MoonRanger rover Peregrine carried could have scouted polar craters for water ice deposits ahead of humans arriving in the region. NASA will now likely rely more on orbital mapping from satellites like Lunar Trailblazer and polar flybys by the CAPSTONE cubesat to identify abundant and accessible water resources.
Water ice near the poles will be key for sustained lunar exploration, providing drinking water, breathable oxygen, and hydrogen/oxygen rocket fuel. Peregrine’s suite of ground-truth instruments could have directly sampled lunar regolith to measure actual water content. Without it, NASA’s lunar water mapping remains largely indirect and subject to uncertainty.
So in summary, Astrobotic’s crashed Peregrine scout won’t immediately ruin NASA’s Artemis plans as backups are in place. But its failure does remove a useful risk-reduction element that could have pinpointed apollo landing sites and verified accessible water reserves ahead of astronaut crews. Overall NASA’s backup orbital missions should fill the gap, but actual boots (and wheels) on the ground are hard to replace.
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