NASA’s ambitious Peregrine lunar lander launched in late 2023 with the goal of being the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon in over 50 years. However, a series of technical issues ultimately doomed the mission, and the Peregrine is now on course to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere in the coming days rather than landing on the lunar surface as intended.
High Hopes Dashed After Series of Setbacks
The $108 million Peregrine mission was funded by NASA but built and operated by Pittsburgh-based space technology company Astrobotic. It launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in November 2023 carrying a variety of payloads from NASA, the European Space Agency, and other partners.
In addition to its scientific instruments, the Peregrine was transporting a collection of memories and mementos in a payload called Heritage Flight. These included the cremated remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and several cast members from the iconic sci-fi franchise.
Initially, the mission progressed smoothly. The Peregrine successfully entered lunar orbit on December 15th and conducted several engine burns to lower its orbit in preparation for landing. However, during a burn on December 18th, the lander experienced a propulsion system failure causing it to spin out of control.
|Peregrine lunar lander launches
|Enters lunar orbit
|December 15, 2023
|Propulsion system failure
|December 18, 2023
|Corrective measures fail
|January 12, 2024
|On course to enter Earth’s atmosphere
|January 18, 2024
Astrobotic mission control attempted several corrective procedures over the next few weeks in hopes of salvaging the $108 million mission. However, with the spacecraft damaged and having expended much of its fuel, all rescue efforts ultimately failed.
On January 12th, 2024, Astrobotic announced that the Peregrine would be unable to achieve a stable orbit or attempt a lunar landing. With no remaining options, the company said it would allow the spacecraft to succumb to the Moon’s gravity and enter a trajectory carrying it back towards Earth.
Human Ashes and Memories Will Be Destroyed Re-Entering Earth
In addition to its NASA and ESA instruments, Peregrine was delivering a payload of memories and human ashes commissioned by space company Celestis Inc. Dubbed the “Heritage Flight,” it contained DNA samples from famed cosmologist Carl Sagan and writer Arthur C. Clarke.
Also onboard were cremated human remains from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry as well as several cast members from the original series, including:
- Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura)
- James Doohan (Scotty)
- Majel Barrett Roddenberry (Nurse Chapel)
With the mission now doomed, these symbolic payloads will be destroyed as intense heat from atmospheric friction rips apart the Peregrine spacecraft during re-entry on January 18th. Family members and fans had hoped the actors’ ashes would be laid to rest on the Moon alongside lunar modules from the Apollo missions. Instead, they will likely vaporize and disperse in Earth’s atmosphere.
While the loss of human life is obviously far more tragic, the demise of the Heritage Flight payload delivers a symbolic blow as well. The cremains and DNA samples onboard represented pioneers in science fiction and space exploration. Their inclusion was meant to inspire future generations to reach for the stars, making their loss alongside the failed lander even more disheartening.
Peregrine “Pushed the Envelope” According to Experts
Space industry experts note that the Peregrine mission was extremely ambitious, especially for a private company’s first ever Moon landing attempt. The spacecraft was reportedly stressed to its limits packing so much cargo destined for the lunar surface.
“They really pushed the envelope here in terms of the amount of payloads and capabilities they tried to cram into Peregrine,” said Dr. Harold Li, an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech University. “Building a reliable lunar lander is challenging enough your first time out. Adding complex science experiments and literally trying to haul human ashes to the Moon made it a very bold mission plan.”
However, Dr. Li and other experts emphasize that ambitious goals often produce valuable lessons. Failures frequently move space technology advancements forward by revealing flaws and areas needing improvement.
Astrobotic also set a new standard in transparency by offering extremely detailed public updates throughout the Peregrine mission. This established trust and goodwill even in the wake of its ultimate failure. The company says knowledge gained from this first bold lunar landing attempt will aid future missions.
Fiery Demise Awaits Peregrine in Earth’s Atmosphere
Barring an extremely unlikely further rescue, the final chapter for the Peregrine lunar lander will occur on January 18th when it collides with Earth’s outer atmosphere moving at over 8,000 mph. Aerodynamic forces will rapidly tear the spacecraft apart followed by incineration of any remaining fragments.
This destructive process typically occurs between 50-75 miles above Earth’s surface. At these extreme velocities, the overwhelming majority of a reentering object’s mass burns away as intense friction super-heats the atmosphere immediately surrounding it. Any remaining pieces smaller than a football will cool down enough before impact that they likely pose little danger.
According to Astrobotic’s analysis, the most likely debris impact zone lies across the Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America. However, with a slim chance of fragments surviving, the company and other space agencies will closely monitor the reentry.
Lessons Learned to Aid Future Lunar Efforts
Rather than dampening enthusiasm, experts expect Peregrine’s failure to reinforce key lessons that will empower upcoming lunar missions by NASA and private companies. The ability to attempt ambitious feats, openly share mistakes, and learn from setbacks is central to humanity’s continued push deeper into space.
This pioneering spirit has already helped NASA achieve historic early successes in its Artemis lunar program while catalyzing private investment into Moon-related technologies. Astrobotic and other companies competing in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program say Peregrine has expanded knowledge critical to mature the cis-lunar economy.
The loss of the first American lunar lander in generations is certainly painful and disheartening. But much like Apollo 1’s tragic fire in 1967, Peregrine’s demise will ultimately produce more capable and reliable spacecraft thanks to hard lessons banked from this valiant attempt.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.