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June 20, 2024

Private Moon Lander Meets Fiery End After Fuel Leak Scuttles NASA Contract

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Jan 20, 2024

The first attempt by a private company to land a spacecraft on the moon ended abruptly earlier this week when a fuel leak caused rocket failure, sending the Peregrine lunar lander on a wayward trip back to Earth.

Astrobotic’s $93.5 million Peregrine lander launched flawlessly in October 2023, carrying the cremated remains of over 50 people along with mementos in a capsule destined for the moon’s surface. But shortly after achieving lunar orbit on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, the lander began leaking fuel which led to a series of failures that left NASA no choice but to scrap the mission.

Dramatic Burn-up Over the South Pacific Ocean

After analyzing the spacecraft’s rapidly decaying orbit, NASA predicted Peregrine would enter Earth’s atmosphere early Saturday morning over the South Pacific. The school bus-sized lander broke apart and disintegrated around 2:40 am Eastern Time after reaching a velocity of nearly 27 times the speed of sound. Debris that didn’t burn up likely plunged into the ocean southeast of Tahiti.

While the loss dashes the dreams of families who paid nearly $13,000 to send their loved ones’ remains to the lunar surface, it also deals a blow to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s goal of making the moon accessible to governments, companies, and individuals.

“We are deeply disappointed by this outcome after the tremendous dedication, focus, and perseverance by our Peregrine Mission One team,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton in a statement. “However, we remain committed to delivering lunar payloads for our customers and partners and will now begin work on our next mission.”

NASA Investigation Underway

NASA and Astrobotic have commenced parallel investigations to determine exactly what went wrong. So far, engineers believe Peregrine began experiencing technical issues shortly after it slipped into lunar orbit last Monday. Specifically, they pinpointed a leak of hypergolic propellants somewhere on the lander.

Hypergolic propellants ignite spontaneously when mixed together, allowing rocket engines to be easily started multiple times in the airless vacuum of space. However, the toxic gases also corrode valves and seals over time. Telemetry from Peregrine suggests its hypergolic fuel system experienced some type of failure that prompted the flight computer to repeatedly fire thrusters to try and stabilize the spacecraft.

But the cascading problems proved too much for the little lander to overcome. Within a day, Peregrine was limping along on residual battery power as it tumbled uncontrolled in a lopsided lunar orbit. With no way to reestablish contact or control, NASA worked with Astrobotic to plot Peregrine’s last days and position monitoring assets to observe its eventual demise.

Paying Customers and Payloads Lost

In addition to NASA’s disappointment over losing a lunar lander so close to its goal, dozens of paying customers who hoped to have their loved ones’ remains buried on the moon have had their dreams dashed. Astrobotic’s Peregrine One mission offered people the opportunity to send up to 1 gram of cremains sealed in a capsule to the lunar surface for $12,500 per gram.

Several notable science fiction authors and actors also signed up, including:

  • Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry
  • Author Arthur C. Clarke
  • Actor James Doohan, famous for playing “Scotty” on Star Trek

Their capsules, along with many belonging to ordinary astronomy enthusiasts, were destroyed when Peregrine broke apart during reentry.

Additionally, Peregrine was carrying payloads from 5 NASA centers and 14 other space technology companies that were also lost. These included tech demo missions like cameras, computing systems, and a rover that will no longer make it to the moon.

While devastating and disappointing for all involved, analysts say Peregrine’s failure should be seen as a lesson rather than a tragedy.

“Space is hard, and this is why we test,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “We will learn from both success and setbacks, building on progress toward achieving ambitious lunar exploration goals.”

What Comes Next

Astrobotic was one of three companies NASA selected to build lunar landers for its Artemis Moon program. So while the Peregrine mission is lost, the space agency will now shift focus toward Astrobotic’s Griffin lander – currently scheduled for launch in 2025.

Griffin is slated to attempt the first docking of a private spacecraft to the Lunar Gateway station NASA plans to insert in orbit around the Moon. If successful, the lander would then detach and bring payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of Earth’s natural satellite.

For commercial companies like Astrobotic, executing a flawless mission is critical to attracting more customers and capital in the nascent space for private lunar delivery services.

“Astrobotic’s setback does not doom the future of commercial lunar landers,” observed Chris Kemp, founder of lunar transportation startup Astra. “SpaceX and others experienced failures early on and were still able to build thriving businesses.”

With NASA accelerating plans to establish a permanent human presence on the moon within this decade, it’s certain that even more spacecraft – government and commercial – will blaze trails to Earth’s natural satellite in coming years.

Mission Summary: Key Details About the Failed Peregrine Lunar Lander
Detail Description
Operator Astrobotic Technology, Inc
Customer NASA – contracted delivery service
Mission Goal Deliver 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis lunar crater
Spacecraft Details * 6.7 feet tall, 8 feet wide (size of small school bus)

* Initial mass: 2,425 lbs at launch

* Hypergolic propulsion system

Notable Payloads * Cremated human remains

* Mementos and mission capsules purchased by customers

* Cameras, computing systems and other tech demos

Launch Date October 13th, 2023
Launcher SpaceX Falcon Heavy
Outcome * Achieved lunar orbit, but suffered fuel system failure

* Tumbled uncontrollably until re-entry on Jan. 20, 2024

* Burned up over South Pacific Ocean

While Peregrine’s story ultimately ended in disappointment, many hope its trailblazing attempt will pave the way for future lunar landers. With NASA accelerating plans for a Moon base, and companies eager to access lunar resources, Earth’s celestial neighbor promises to get much busier in the years ahead.

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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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