On January 18th, 2024, the private lunar lander Peregrine 1, built by Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic Technology, was destroyed during atmospheric re-entry after a failed attempt to land on the moon. The $100 million spacecraft was carrying scientific instruments and symbolic cargo intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing.
Failed Launch Attempt
Peregrine 1 launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on January 2nd from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was successful, sending the lander on a trajectory towards the moon. However, shortly after leaving Earth orbit, mission controllers lost contact with the spacecraft.
Investigations revealed a fuel leak occurred not long after achieving lunar transfer orbit. With insufficient fuel to complete its journey or even return to Earth orbit, the craft became stranded in space. After two weeks of analysis, engineers determined Peregrine’s systems were too damaged for recovery. With no remaining options, the craft was set on an inevitable collision course with Earth to meet its demise.
Destruction Upon Re-entry
As expected, radar systems tracked Peregrine 1’s re-entry on January 18th at 10:39 pm EST above the South Pacific Ocean, approximately 2200 miles southeast of Easter Island. Traveling at over 8,800 mph at the time, the one ton lander disintegrated and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere around 37 miles above the ocean surface.
No debris reached the ground, ensuring the event posed no risk to populated areas. Astrobotic reported no unexpected readings from their diagnostics, meaning the craft likely remained intact until the final seconds of re-entry.
Symbolic Payloads Lost
While the loss of the spacecraft itself proves costly, more symbolically significant is the destruction of Peregrine’s unique payload. The lander was carrying a time capsule containing several high-profile artifacts intended to honor key figures in spaceflight history.
Among the lost symbolic cargo were:
A small portion of the cremated remains of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, known for conceptualizing communications satellites long before they were feasible.
Likewise, a symbolic ash sample of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who inspired generations to imagine humanity’s future in space.
A data storage device holding messages and memories from over a million public Space+ members who contributed to an “Archive of Humanity” meant for future moon inhabitants to discover.
Arusted hammer head used in the construction of Launch Pad 39A, the historic site of Apollo 11 and SpaceX’s first crewed launches.
An ounce of lunar regolith, or moon soil, returned from the Apollo 17 mission, completing a symbolic return of the material.
|Arthur C. Clarke ashes
|Sci-fi author who envisioned satellites
|Gene Roddenberry ashes
|Star Trek creator inspired space travel dreams
|Archive of Humanity data archive
|1M+ public messages and memories
|Rusted hammer from Launch Pad 39A
|Tool used to build Apollo 11 launch site
|Lunar regolith from Apollo 17
|Ounce of moon soil returning home
While only symbolic prizes, their loss along with the rest of the $100 million lander and the failed mission represent a major setback for Astrobotic’s long-term goal of establishing a commercial lunar delivery service.
NASA Partnership at Risk
Astrobotic was among three companies selected by NASA in 2020 to deliver science and technology payloads to the moon’s surface as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. The venture aimed to spur development of cost-effective robotic lunar landing capabilities while helping NASA achieve its Artemis goal of returning humans to the moon.
Astrobotic still has a NASA contract to ferry up to 14 payloads aboard future flights, but must now prove they can rebound from this failure. Competitors at Masten Space Systems and Intuitive Machines remain on track to undertake their first CLPS missions within the next year. Astrobotic meanwhile has returned to the drawing board to determine what went wrong.
The company had completed extensive ground testing and was primed to be the first ever private lunar lander. Their failure reinforces the immense technical challenges of not only reaching the lunar surface, but doing so with pinpoint accuracy.
Planning the Next Attempt
Astrobotic reports they have another lander, nicknamed Griffin, already well into production. Griffin will carry the payloads meant for Peregrine’s ill-fated flight.
The company remains optimistic about Griffin’s readiness to launch by mid-2025. But first they must convince NASA the issues behind Peregrine’s demise won’t be repeated. An independent review board will spend the coming months picking apart sensor readings and simulations to determine exactly what sequence or failure precipitated the fatal fuel leak.
Addressing vulnerabilities uncovered by the review will likely delay Griffin’s mission as the spacecraft undergoes redesign and additional testing. Regardless of when it flies, Griffin cannot afford the same fate, as investor confidence and Astrobotic’s role in NASA’s lunar plans would be all but shattered by a second failure.
Peregrine’s failure highlights the immense risks inherent even in reaching the proximity of the moon. But new space companies like Astrobotic intend to stand up again after getting knocked down. The global fervor around returning to the moon means there remains much at stake for companies charting affordable paths to Earth’s rocky neighbor.
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