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July 18, 2024

Fuel Leak Dooms Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander Moon Mission

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Jan 12, 2024

Astrobotic’s first lunar lander mission ended in failure on January 8th when the Peregrine spacecraft sprang a fuel leak shortly after launch. The Pittsburgh-based company’s dreams of being the first private enterprise to soft land a spacecraft on the moon were dashed as flight controllers determined the damage was beyond recovery.

Successful Vulcan Centaur Rocket Launch Quickly Goes Awry

The Peregrine lander began its ill-fated journey to the moon atop United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which completed its first successful flight that day. The Vulcan lifted off without issue at 2:37 pm EST from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, carrying Astrobotic’s spacecraft into orbit. Initially, flight controllers reported nominal telemetry from the lander as the Vulcan’s upper stage put Peregrine on course for the moon. However, about half an hour after spacecraft separation, Astrobotic received an emergency signal indicating a dangerous fuel leak on board the lander.

Over the next several hours, engineers desperately tried to diagnose and troubleshoot the problem as Peregrine continued heading towards the moon with no ability to change course or orbit. The leakage occurred in a part of the propulsion system that would normally be used for course corrections and the all-important final descent to the lunar surface. Any remaining fuel spilled out into space during the six-day cruise, decisively eliminating any slim hopes of salvaging the main mission objectives.

NASA Science Payloads Stranded with No Chance of Soft Landing

In addition to dozens of commercial and academic research payloads, Peregrine carried 11 sophisticated NASA instruments designed to study the lunar environment and geology. Tragically, the failure made Astrobotic the latest in a long line of lunar landing attempts that didn’t survive the journey from Earth. While the company still hopes to regain contact with Peregrine as it reaches the moon, CEO John Thornton confirmed that “the chance of soft landing the spacecraft on the lunar surface is now zero.”

Without enough fuel to brake or change course, the 2,100-pound lander will zoom past its intended touchdown site and crash into the surface at over half a mile per second. The high-speed impact, equivalent to six times the speed of a bullet, will undoubtedly destroy Peregrine and its cargo beyond recognition. Astrobotic had aspired to touch down at Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the moon, on January 11th after a four-day descent. Timing the arrival for sunrise at the landing site, mission controllers hoped to capture the historic event and first images clearly with ground-based radio telescopes.

Payload Organization Purpose Status
Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) NASA Ames Research Center Detect water frost and other volatiles on the surface Destroyed
Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Precisely determine distance between Earth and Moon Destroyed
Stereo CAmeras for Lunar Plume Surface Studies (SCALPSS 1 & 2) NASA Langley Research Center Study lunar plume effects from lander engine Destroyed
Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) NASA Ames Research Center Measure hydrogen abundance below the surface Destroyed
Reconfigurable, Radiation Tolerant Computer System (RadPC) NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Test commercial off-the-shelf computer hardware for space Destroyed
Regolith Adherence Characterization (RAC) NASA Kennedy Space Center Study rocket plume effects on lunar regolith Destroyed
Plume Impingement Surface Sampler (PISS) NASA Kennedy Space Center Collect plume debris samples from landing Destroyed
Laser Dust Detector (L-DED) NASA Kennedy Space Center Detect dust kicked up during terminal descent Destroyed
Stereo Cameras for Lunar Imaging (Stereo CAMLI) NASA Marshall Space Flight Center High resolution surface imaging Destroyed
Surface Environment Monitoring System (SEMS) NASA Glenn Research Center Measure lunar environment during surface ops Destroyed
Optical Communications (OptComm) tech demo NASA Glenn Research Center Test high-rate laser data links Destroyed

Devastated researchers now have the grim task of writing off years of preparation and cutting-edge instrumentation that represented tens of millions in invested funding. Michael Collier of NASA Glenn, lead on the SEMS and OptComm experiments, lamented that “After all the hard work getting here, seeing it end like this just makes your heart sink.” Engineers at Astrobotic headquarters in Pittsburgh monitored the unfolding emergency in shock. Public Relations director John Thornton struggled to maintain composure while addressing the media, “This is certainly not the first lunar mission to fail…but that doesn’t make this outcome any less painful.”

Human Remains Onboard Leave Families in Distress

In a controversial move, Astrobotic’s Peregrine carried a few ounces of cremated human remains in its payload, sponsored by the company Celestis Memorial Spaceflights. Family members paid to have a symbolic portion of their loved one’s ashes carried to the moon in the event of a successful landing. The Peregrine also hosted a tiny “Lunar Memorial” tube with DNA samples from science luminaries like Albert Einstein and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

While most payloads focused on research, young space enthusiasts and sci-fi fans participated by sending personal mementos that would have been left behind with the lander. Messages of remembrance and encapsulated photos, drawings, and poetry would have created a “time capsule letter to the future” on the moon. Now, those touching tributes from people across Earth will be just another layer of space junk scattered across the regolith. Distraught customers of Celestis are still coming to terms with more personal losses as the spacecraft angels among their loved ones slip beyond reach.

China Surges Ahead in New Space Race While Artemis Falls Behind

Experts say opportunities come from adversity, but there’s no putting a positive spin on losing an entire spacecraft. It’s a grievous setback for NASA’s ambitions to partner with commercial companies supporting its Artemis program for sustainable lunar exploration. Astrobotic expected to clear technical hurdles with the Peregrine pathfinder before shipping NASA instruments on subsequent missions. Following years of investment, their failure sets back those plans indefinitely.

Additionally, the loss mars an otherwise triumphant occasion for United Launch Alliance and their next-generation Vulcan rocket making its first flight. While the launch vehicle performed flawlessly, its payload fell victim to the merciless margins of spaceflight.

An uncrewed Chinese sample return lander is still scheduled for the moon’s far side this year, which could compound perceptions that ambitious NASA projects and commercial partnerships continue falling short. Congress will need to carefully evaluate if enough progress is happening in time to land astronauts on the moon by 2025. Administrator Bill Nelson remains optimistic, recently telling Artemis teams: “NASA chooses the hard paths because that is what moves us forward the fastest. Yes, we learn from the setbacks, but we also learn that we can persevere through adversity.” The coming months will test that resolve as engineers make renewed vows that the next lunar voyagers find better fortune.

##Astrobotic Picks Up The Pieces From Peregrine’s Demise

Meanwhile, Astrobotic staff are assessing what can still be accomplished with the ailing spacecraft on its hopeless trajectory. With over a hundred onboard payload customers expecting data contributions, engineers shift focus to gathering whatever telemetry remains possible. John Thornton announced they’ve established communication with several experiments riding inside Peregrine and will try maintaining contact up through lunar impact. Any swan song instrument readings and images of the moon during the flyby could partially redeem scientific losses.

Most commercial orbital missions insure their expensive hardware and payouts would help fund rebuilding Peregrine. Astrobotic believes NASA leadership recognizes teething problems come with advancing state-of-the-art systems bound for unforgiving environments. The agency willingly assumes shared risk and doesn’t expect immediate success. However, continued confidence requires evidence of maturing technologies, learning from mistakes, showing systemic improvements over iterative developments.

Astrobotic still envisions establish regular commercial logistics services resupplying a future lunar base. But those plans ride on demonstrating reliability first. Thornton concedes they must now “go back to the drawing board and identify root causes” before mounting their next attempt. Astrobotic’s sister lander, MoonRanger, is still on the path towards a 2025 touchdown. After the Peregrine setback, enormous pressure falls on MoonRanger for a flawless performance to regain trust.

Redemption starts with a no-holds-barred investigation into what doomed Peregrine. Spaceflight companies commiserate with one another’s losses and assist internal reviews to improve industry-wide. Fellow lunar transportation firm Intuitive Machines, also contracted by NASA, offered test stand equipment to help diagnose the fuel system failure.

Engineers carry painful hindsight from seeing their ambitions literally go up in smoke. But exploring space always means betting against immense risks for transcendent rewards. Each passing test or failed try brings more understanding to tame the dangers. Mourning the lost probe, Astrobotic founders still firmly believe “space is still hard, but worth it.” Their mission now becomes applying hard lessons so the next Peregrine can safely achieve what this one tragically could not.

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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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