Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander, which aimed to be the first private spacecraft to land on the Moon, burned up in Earth’s atmosphere on January 19th after experiencing failures that caused it to miss the Moon.
Background on the Peregrine Mission
The Peregrine lander was launched on January 2nd aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket by the United Launch Alliance. Its goal was to deliver scientific payloads and the cremated remains of several notable science fiction authors to the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
Peregrine was carrying 11 payloads from 5 countries, including a rover provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Several payment-funded memorials were also on board, including small amounts of cremated remains from the family of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
The $108 million mission represented a major step towards increased commercialization and privatization of space exploration. Astrobotic Technology, based in Pittsburgh, is one of several companies working with NASA to foster growth of a lunar economy.
Communication Failure and Course Correction Attempts
Several days after launch, Peregrine experienced a failure in its communications system which prevented it from sending or receiving signals. Without communication, ground controllers were unable to track the lander’s trajectory or make course corrections.
Over the following days, amateur astronomers helped locate Peregrine optically and determined it would miss intersecting the Moon. With no way to steer the craft, all 11 payloads onboard were lost.
Astrobotic and NASA made attempts to reestablish communication by aiming various Earth and space telescopes towards Peregrine’s expected location, but the signal silence continued up until reentry.
Fiery Demise Upon Reentry
With Peregrine on course to swing past the Moon back towards Earth, NASA closely tracked its return trajectory. Final predictions targeted a reentry location over the South Pacific on January 19th.
Upon hitting the outer atmosphere at over 25,000 mph, the one-ton spacecraft experienced immense heating and aerodynamic pressures which caused it to burn up and disintegrate. Any remaining fragments would have quickly plunged into the ocean.
This high-velocity reentry meant the human remains onboard were exposed to extreme incineration, despite the participents’ wishes for burial on the lunar surface.
Impact on Commercial Lunar Industry
While the loss of Peregrine’s payloads is unfortunate, Astrobotic does not expect it will negatively impact the growth of the commercial lunar market. They had already begun work on their next lander, called Griffin, which will allow them to re-attempt failed payloads from Peregrine.
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Astrobotic says they will begin a failure investigation once the flight data recorders are recovered, but they have checked design improvements already underway against plausible causes.
Competitors like Intuitive Machines remain on track for NASA contract fulfillment. While budget constraints could slow NASA’s CLPS program, recent legislation promises funding towards public-private Moon lander partnerships through at least 2026.
The Peregrine accident has fueled critiques on the role of private space companies and the need for stronger regulation. However, others argue Peregrine’s very publicly witnessed failure speaks to the fast pace of development in commercial space. The market remains undeterred, with customer reservations continuing across multiple planned science and logistics missions.
A Bittersweet Milestone
While tragic in result, Peregrine’s fiery demise marks a bittersweet milestone in humanity’s return to deep space after decades of stagnation. The mission captivated the public and signified major progress toward routine commercial access to the Moon.
As the investigations proceed, Peregrine’s failure offers lessons that will ultimately strengthen both NASA and private industry as partners forging our path as a solar system civilization. Astrobotic still envisions a Moon teeming with instruments, infrastructure and people – a vision now slightly more distant but very much intact.
In the coming weeks, search efforts may attempt to recover Peregrine’s flight data recorders from the South Pacific to assist the accident investigation.
While Astrobotic works to determine what went wrong, NASA remains confident in the agency’s public-private partnership strategy. They look ahead to a robust manifest of 11 additional robotic Moon landers from commercial providers by the late 2020s.
With crewed lunar missions on the horizon this decade as part of the Artemis program, great care will be taken to apply any lessons from Peregrine towards safe and sustainable long-term human exploration of the Moon.
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