Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander, which suffered critical failures en route to the moon last week, is now hurtling back to Earth on an uncontrolled trajectory and will likely burn up in the atmosphere on Thursday. The innovative but ill-fated spacecraft was carrying not only NASA science payloads, but also symbolic “passengers” like the cremated remains of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology won a NASA contract in 2020 to deliver scientific instruments and technology demonstration payloads to the moon aboard their Peregrine lander as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The spacecraft launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on January 7th atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also carrying secondary payloads.
Peregrine was designed to land in mid-2024 near the moon’s equatorial Lacus Mortis region carrying 11 NASA and research payloads, including instruments to study lunar geology and dust, test small rover mobility concepts, assess radiation exposure, and demonstrate precise landing technologies. The mission was intended to pave the way for an eventual series of CLPS lunar deliveries by commercial partners.
In addition to NASA’s instruments, Peregrine’s manifest included a non-scientific “secondary payload” from the private company Celestis Inc. – a capsulated portion of cremated human remains. Past Celestis memorial spaceflights have carried “participants” like “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, and geologist Eugene Shoemaker.
The first sign of trouble came shortly after Peregrine’s Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) burn last Saturday, when a series of system failures caused the lander to lose orientation control and tumble uncontrollably through space.
Ground controllers worked around-the-clock over 5 tense days to regain control and attempt to salvage the $108 million mission, but by Wednesday the spacecraft was declared a total loss. Experts now predict Peregrine will plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere early Thursday morning eastern time.
“I’m afraid there is no longer any hope of recovery,” said NASA’s CLPS program manager Nantel Suzuki in a statement on Wednesday. “At this point we are focusing our efforts on contingencies that will ensure public safety during the lander’s uncontrolled reentry.”
Imminent Fiery Demise
With Peregrine now caught in Earth’s gravitational pull, space agencies expect the stricken craft’s orbit to decay rapidly. Current tracking indicates the lander will intersect the atmosphere at hypersonic velocity above the southern Indian Ocean at approximately 2:13 am EST on January 18th.
Frictional heating from reentry will likely see the spacecraft break up and mostly vaporize high in the atmosphere. However, given Peregine’s substantial mass, space debris experts estimate up to 450 kilograms of hardy materials like aluminum alloys could potentially survive to sea level.
| Spacecraft Component | Quantity | Size | Impact Risk
| ————- |:————-:|————-:|————-:|
| Propellant tanks | 5 | 1m diameter spheres | High temperature survivability |
| Thrusters | 16 | Boxes up to 0.5m length | Refractory nozzle materials may survive |
| Reaction wheels | 4 | 0.3m cubes, 10 kg each| Significant kinetic energy |
| Multilayer insulation | 35 m^2 | Flexible blankets | Possible large intact sections |
Table 1: Peregrine component debris survival estimates. Source: The Aerospace Corporation
Though unlikely to directly impact inhabited areas, space agencies are warning aircraft and vessels near the projected crash zone to exercise caution around the estimated four-minute atmospheric entry window.
Meanwhile, the expected incineration of the Celestis memorial capsules – and their symbolic occupants like Roddenberry – has stirred controversy and debates over appropriate vs. frivolous use of rare space mission capacity.
“My heart goes out to those families who now have to grieve their loved ones all over again,” said science reporter Dan Winters in an editorial for The Guardian. However, others like Professor Emeritus Konstantin Borisov defend Celestis’ 31-year history of memorial spaceflights:
“The human desire to memorialize the dead is ancient and universal,” contends Borisov. “As we expand civilization into space, it is natural this tradition should follow.”
In parallel with end-of-mission priorities, Astrobotic and NASA engineers are working to unravel exactly what caused Peregrine’s fatal technical problems. So far investigators have traced the cascade of failures to a possible exploded battery or blown fuse. However further analysis will be complicated by a lack of telemetry data following the initial incident.
“Pinpointing a root cause will be extremely difficult under the circumstances,” explained NASA reliability engineer Amanda Kim. “But we absolutely plan to identify key vulnerabilities that precipitated this event”.
Lessons from the investigation will inform design changes and operational limits on all CLPS missions going forward. This prevention mandate is especially crucial given that three lunar lander variants currently under development by Astrobotic are near-identical to Peregrine.
The loss of Peregrine deals a discouraging setback both to NASA’s CLPS program and Astrobotic’s business ambitions after more than 15 years of technological development. However, agency leadership remains committed to the public-private partnership approach for realizing lunar exploration goals.
Several more fully commercial moon lander missions are slated across 2024-2025, including Astrobotic’s Griffin configuration – essentially an upgraded Peregrine. There is hope the company has time to incorporate any necessary technical refinements given Griffin’s May 2025 target launch date.
Table 2: Upcoming commercial moon lander missions in the CLPS program pipeline
“Astrobotic’s setback is disappointing, but this pioneering business model was never going to go smoothly right out of the gate,” said Phil Smith, a space industry analyst. Smith added:
“The commercial innovation approach championed by CLPS trades implementation speed for cost efficiency, risk tolerance and technical diversity. Failure is part of that process, but the program remains resilient overall.”
For their part, Astrobotic leadership recognizes Peregrine’s loss as a sobering reality check, while still expressing optimism at progress made so far.
“Space is hard,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thorton on Monday. “But I’m confident we will bounce back smarter and be ready for our next lunar landing attempt.”
The coming months promise an uneasy period of investigation into Peregrine’s failure, while in parallel racing to prepare the next wave of spacecraft destined for the moon. All stakeholders agree the CLPS initiative must ultimately press forward if sustainable, affordable lunar exploration is to become reality.
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