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May 29, 2024

Fiery End for Peregrine as Lunar Lander meets its Demise

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Jan 19, 2024

The privately-funded Peregrine lunar lander, on what was meant to be the first commercial Moon landing, has met its demise after communication was lost and it drifted off course. The spacecraft is now destined to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere today in a fiery re-entry.

Background

The Peregrine spacecraft was developed by Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic Technology, who were contracted by NASA to deliver scientific payloads to the Moon on the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

Valued at $93.3 million, the mission marked the first attempt at a private Moon landing. Peregrine was due to touch down in the Lacus Mortis region of the Moon on Friday, November 11th last year.

Onboard was a collection of instruments and technology demonstrations as well as a time capsule containing the cremated remains of science fiction legends like Star Trek’s “Scotty” actor James Doohan.

Launch and Journey to the Moon

The Peregrine lander launched flawlessly on November 7th atop a Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. After achieving orbit, Peregrine successfully fired its engines to escape Earth’s gravitational pull and set itself on a path to the Moon.

Over 20 successful trajectory correction manoeuvres kept the craft on target for its lunar arrival date of November 11th. However, in the final stages of the delicate landing sequence, at an altitude of just 2.5km above the Moon’s surface, contact was lost.

Loss of Contact

Flight controllers first noticed a communications fault with the lander at around 5:30 pm EST on November 11th. Telemetry showed that the spacecraft had suddenly veered off course after igniting its main braking engine in preparation for landing.

A loss of navigational data combined with unexpected movement triggered an emergency abort of the landing sequence. Without stabilisation, Peregrine drifted further and further from its intended landing site.

Hours of attempts to reestablish contact with the spacecraft proved unsuccessful, eventually prompting managers to declare Peregrine as lost on November 15th.

New Trajectory Towards Earth

While the reason for Peregrine’s failure remains unknown, orbital tracking has shown the silent spacecraft left stranded in space near the Moon has been kicked onto a new collision course with Earth by gravitational forces.

Previously in a stable lunar orbit, the dead probe found itself influenced more and more by the Earth’s gravity over time. Like a slowly tightening spiral, this has directed Peregrine into a trajectory that will see it hit the outermost fringes of Earth’s atmosphere today (January 19th 2024).

Fiery Demise

Too small and slow to pose any risk, space agencies confirm that Peregrine will harmlessly burn up during its dive into our atmosphere. Travelling at over 9,600 mph, the fist-sized lander will generate immense heat through friction that will overwhelm its structure.

Experts expect brighter than usual but brief streaks in the sky to delight early riser sky-gazers along a track over the South Pacific as Peregrine breaks apart at around 4:30 am EST today.

Debris remnants that survive initial atmospheric entry will splash down east of New Zealand, far from any populated areas.

Reaction

Astrobotic say they are evaluating exactly what went wrong, but the loss serves as a reminder of the immense challenges in space flight.

“Space is hard,” said Dan Hendrickson, Astrobotic’s vice president of engineering. “While we are disappointed with this outcome, we remain committed to the principles of regularly attempting lunar landings.”

The company has already completed 75% of their second lunar lander, Griffin, which they still plan to launch in 2025. Additionally, Astrobotic believes most of Peregrine’s secondary payload of scientific instruments likely survived the uncontrolled landing on the Moon, leaving open the possibility for partial mission success if any data can be recovered.

NASA say failures are part of any ambitious space endeavor and learnings will feed into the next generation spacecraft under development in their Artemis program that will return humans to the Moon this decade.

Peregrine Lunar Lander Mission Timeline

| November 7th 2023 | Launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida
| November 11th 2023 | Arrival and attempted landing at Lacus Mortis region of Moon
| November 15th 2023 | Lander declared lost after no communication reestablished
| January 19th 2024 | Uncontrolled re-entry and break up in Earth’s atmosphere

“Peregrine helped forge a path for companies to provide regular commercial delivery services to the Moon, preparing the way for NASA’s upcoming science and technology demonstrations in deep space under Artemis,” said NASA’s director for lunar exploration Sarah Noble.

What’s Next?

While Astrobotic plan future private missions to learn from this setback, all eyes turn to NASA’s crewed Artemis flights to get humans living on the Moon once more and establish the lunar economy needed to make sites like Lacus Mortis reachable again.

Key Artemis program dates include the first SLS test flight around the Moon later this year before a lunar flyby with astronauts in 2025. This pathfinder will pave the way for boots back on the ground by 2026 at the latest.

When the time comes for humanity’s resurgence on the Moon, the lessons learnt from bold but doomed missions like Astrobotic’s Peregrine will undoubtedly have played their part in making it possible.

AiBot

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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