Peregrine Lunar Lander Fails To Reach Moon, Burns Up On Re-Entry
The privately-funded Peregrine lunar lander, launched by Pittsburgh-based space company Astrobotic in late 2023, has failed in its historic attempt to be the first private spacecraft to land on the Moon.
After launching successfully in November aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket, the lander began experiencing technical issues during its journey to the Moon. A fuel leak left Peregrine unable to complete the required engine burns to enter lunar orbit and land on the surface as planned. With not enough fuel to achieve its mission, ground controllers had no choice but to let the spacecraft swing back towards Earth.
Peregrine re-entered Earth’s atmosphere above the South Pacific Ocean on January 18th, 2024. The $93 million spacecraft disintegrated due to the intense heat and forces exerted on its structure, with any remaining fragments falling into the ocean east of New Zealand. No injuries or damage have been reported from the re-entry event.
While the outcome is undoubtedly disappointing, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton remained upbeat: “It was a wild adventure, and while the ending isn’t what we hoped for, the team did exceptional work.”
Carried Personal Effects And Science Payloads Destroyed
Onboard Peregrine’s doomed flight were a number of small payloads from NASA, academia, and the commercial sector. Tragically, also onboard were urns containing human cremains and DNA samples – part of a unique ‘memorial spaceflight’ provided by Celestis Inc.
The ashes of several notable science fiction authors were being transported to the lunar surface for burial, including:
- Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek
- Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Heartbreakingly, their families had paid over $13,000 to send a symbolic portion of cremains to rest on the Moon. Instead, those cremains and keepsakes have now been destroyed due to Peregrine’s failure.
“I’m gutted, to say the least,” said Charles Chafer, founder of UK space exploration firm Space Enterprise Consortia, who had a family member’s DNA on board.
Also lost was a payload from Morehead State University, containing student experiments and a symbol of the school’s mascot.
Major Setback For Commercial Lunar Industry
While Astrobotic plans to learn from this disappointment and build new lunar landers for future attempts, some industry analysts see Peregrine’s loss as a major setback.
The mission represented a pioneering public-private partnership model being used by NASA, who contributed $79.5 million to Peregrine’s development costs.
“NASA has an experimental new partnership with private industry, intended to reduce costs for American taxpayers while allowing commercial companies to own and operate the spacecraft.” stated Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey in a press release.
With NASA ramping up plans to build a permanent Moon base housing astronauts by 2030, the agency is relying on private firms to handle cargo transport and infrastructure builds. Astrobotic’s failure here puts their lunar strategy at risk.
Peregrine Joins List Of Failed Moon Missions
Sadly, Peregrine now joins a long list of lunar spacecraft that never made it to their destination. Past government-led missions that experienced similar failure include:
|Cause of Failure
|Crash-landed on lunar surface
|Engine failure, crash-landed
|Chandrayaan-2 Vikram Lander
|Communication loss, crash-landed
|Fuel leak, re-entered Earth atmosphere
However, unlike those past attempts, Peregrine was a fully privately-developed system under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The economic repercussions for Astrobotic could be severe after such an expensive failure.
Astrobotic Commits To Next Moon Mission By 2026
Facing criticism over the lost spacecraft, Astrobotic executives hosted a press conference confirming they will build and launch another lunar lander in 2026.
The new mission will use Griffin Lander, a larger spacecraft already under construction. It will demonstrate advanced navigation and hazard avoidance technology to achieve the precise Moon landing that eluded Peregrine.
“Astrobotic remains dedicated to being an off-planet delivery service for payloads needing to get to the Moon” said senior director Dan Hendrickson.
To fund this, the company is even willing to sell payload space at cut-price rates compared to Peregrine’s mission. They still retain NASA’s confidence and have a multi-mission contract under the CLPS program through 2028.
Next Private Moon Landing Attempts
While Astrobotic starts work on Griffin Lander, other firms continue pursuing their own Moon trips:
Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander remains on schedule for a launch this October. Carrying NASA instruments, it will assess lunar resources and study the radiation environment.
ispace Europe’s Mission 1 plans to launch a pair of lunar surface rovers in late 2024, after postponing their initial 2022 launch target. The rovers will capture high-definition video footage transmitted back to Earth.
Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 lander has a 2025 launch window after recently securing $41 million in NASA funding. It will test precise landing and in-situ resource utilization on the Moon’s south pole.
So while Peregrine’s crash is a painful blow, it thankfully does not mark the end of commercial Moon exploration efforts. Multiple viable contenders remain committed to achieving affordable and regular cargo delivery services there. With tweaks to mission design and risk reduction now likely, Astrobotic will hope to join their ranks on their next attempt.
In closing, January 2024’s loss of the privately-funded Peregrine spacecraft serves as an unfortunate reminder of just how difficult lunar exploration remains. Yet despite the sacrifices involved when daring greatly, humanity continues striving to expand our presence beyond Earth orbit. Valuable lessons will be learned from this disappointing outcome, improving future missions’ chances for success.
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