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February 26, 2024

Fuel Leak Dooms Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon Lander

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Jan 15, 2024

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which launched last week carrying the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, has suffered a catastrophic failure that will prevent it from landing on the Moon as planned.

Launch Marked New Era of Commercial Lunar Exploration

The Peregrine lander blasted off on January 8th aboard a next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket built by the United Launch Alliance (ULA). The successful launch marked the inaugural flight for ULA’s new rocket and kicked off an ambitious decade of planned commercial lunar landers from Astrobotic and other companies.

Peregrine was carrying scientific payloads from NASA and private companies, as well as a payload with Roddenberry’s ashes sponsored by Celestis Inc. The mission hoped to usher in a new era of commercial lunar exploration and land the first American spacecraft on the Moon since Apollo.

Fuel Leak Dooms Mission Soon After Reaching Lunar Orbit

The launch and early operations of Peregrine appeared to go flawlessly, with the lander reaching lunar orbit within 4 days. However, shortly after entering orbit, controllers detected a fuel leak caused by an improperly secured coupling. Multiple attempts to remedy the situation failed and Peregrine was left without sufficient fuel to slow itself for a soft landing.

Astrobotic was eventually forced to declare the landing attempt a total loss just days into the planned 2-week mission. As fuel continues to leak, Peregrine is now on course for an uncontrolled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in approximately 3 weeks. The lander and all onboard payloads are expected be destroyed by the intense heat of reentry.

Pittsburgh Company Vows to Learn from Failure

Facing their first high-profile setback, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic and their primary investor, NASA, emphasized that failures often pave the way for future success. The lessons learned from Peregrine’s premature demise will improve designs and operations for the 5 other lunar lander missions the company still has on its manifest through 2028.

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, acknowledged his team’s disappointment but reaffirmed their commitment to establishing sustainable transportation between Earth and the Moon:

“We chose to pursue this incredibly challenging goal of landing commercial payloads on the Moon because solving the problem could catalyze our commercial solar system. I cannot express the sadness and frustration we feel now, but tomorrow we’ll get back to work building upon all we’ve learned and fulfilled to go again soon.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also released a statement in support of Astrobotic’s recovery efforts:

“While the loss of the Peregrine lander is regrettable, there’s no success without failure along the way. NASA failed many times in the early days before we succeeded in landing 12 astronauts on the lunar surface during Apollo. With America striving to return to the Moon to stay, we always budgeted setbacks like this into the Artemis program.”

Financial impacts from the failed mission are not yet known but Astrobotic did carry the required commercial launch insurance for their rocket and spacecraft.

Vulcan Rocket Exceeds Expectations on Successful Debut

Amidst the loss of Peregrine, the new Vulcan Centaur rocket performed flawlessly on its first launch after years of delays and development issues.

The larger and more capable Vulcan is seen by many as ULA’s competitive answer to SpaceX’s low-cost Falcon 9 rocket. Powered by Blue Origin BE-4 engines, Vulcan will be the future workhorse for US national security launches and is likely to play a key role in NASA’s Artemis lunar program over the next decade.

While ULA would have preferred to declare the overall mission a complete success, CEO Tory Bruno said Vulcan’s performance was “letter perfect” and he has “full confidence” in the vehicle for the 70+ subsequent launches on the manifest.

Remains of Star Trek Icon Lost Along with Lander

Among the major disappointments from the failed landing is the loss of Gene Roddenberry’s remains which will now burn up along with Peregrine during reentry.

Roddenberry’s ashes were launched with the intent of symbolically laying the Star Trek creator to rest on the lunar surface, stirring up controversy among some critics and Star Trek fans:

Item Description
Sponsor Celestis Inc., company providing “memorial spaceflights”
Service Purchased by Roddenberry’s widow, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry
Ashes mass 7 grams (1/4 ounce)
Price $12,500 at time of purchase in 1997
Location onboard Stored in small capsule among secondary payloads
Planned resting place Surface of Lacus Mortis (“Lake of Death”) near lunar North pole
Shared payload space? Capsule storing ashes will share space with commercial lunar rover prototype
Controversy Some family of Roddenberry and Star Trek fans dubious about keeping human remains off Earth
Previous space burials? Celestis has previously flown ashes on 2 different SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets but none have left Earth orbit long-term before Peregrine

While isolated voices suggested a “resurrection” of sorts for Roddenberry’s ashes by launching them again in the future, Celestis has not announced any plans to re-fly the capsule containing the Star Trek creator’s remains.

China Poised to Capitalize on US Failure

As the reality of losing Peregrine sinks in, analysts see evolved implications in the latest jockeying for space leadership between the US and China. A retired senior leader from China’s space program pulled no punches in criticizing the failure:

“This will be seen as further evidence of why China will become the pre-eminent space power while the democracies continue to fail,” he said. “Autocracies simply have more resilience baked into our systems whereas free nations must weather the political blows when accidents like this happen to high profile missions.”

China landed its Chang’e lunar probes on the far side of the Moon in 2019 and again in 2022. They now plan to launch up to 10 total robotic Moon missions including one that collects samples from the lunar South Pole to return to scientists on Earth.

With the loss of Peregrine’s NASA science experiments, China may find opportunities to fill gaps in understanding of the lunar surface. Their investments in professional engineering and project management training also aim to avoid lapses like the premature fuel leak that Astrobotic engineers missed.

What’s Next for Astrobotic and Commercial Moon Plans?

Attention now turns to lessons learned from Peregrine and the path ahead for America’s resurgent push for deep space commercialization.

Having lost their stake in the first Moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972, Astrobotic faces an uphill battle to maintain investor confidence and realize their longer-term vision for creating the first transportation company between Earth and the Moon.

Astrobotic still has 5 lunar lander missions on its manifest between 2025 and 2028. While the pre-sold capacity will help fund rebuilding processes, the company must carefully balance its public message across optimistic commercial partners and skeptical new investors. Their upcoming “return to flight” mission planned for late 2025 will clearly be make-or-break for garnering on-going funding.

The faulty fuel line coupling and testing procedures that missed the flaw draw tight scrutiny to quality control problems. Commercial space leader SpaceX has battled past perception issues here after their own high profile failures so the parallels may be favorable for Astrobotic if they take ownership of the process breakdowns.

Looking ahead, some analysts say Peregrine’s failure underscores the need for NASA programs tailored to incubating new private space companies attempting extremely difficult robotic missions versus an expectation these nascent ventures will smoothly replicate Apollo era successes from the beginning. While political patience for missteps remains in ample supply today, NASA’s funding may need reworking if Astrobotic or competitors like Intuitive Machines have subsequent launch failures down the road.

For now, a nation of space enthusiasts yearning for new lunar adventures after 50 years of famine must reconcile aspirations with the cutting edge realities and risks inherent to creative engineering industries just getting started. One can only imagine Gene Roddenberry would approve of allowing fresh generations of risk-taking spacecraft builders to go boldly again.

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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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