Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander burns up in Earth’s atmosphere

A spacecraft headed to the Moon’s surface ended up on Earth, burning up in the planet’s atmosphere Thursday afternoon.

Pittsburgh Astrobotics Technology Announced in a publication on the social network that it lost communication with its Peregrine lunar lander at 3:50 p.m. Eastern Time, indicating that it entered Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific at approximately 4:04 p.m.

“We are awaiting independent confirmation from government entities,” the company said.

It was an intentional, if disappointing, end to a journey that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the craft passing the orbit of the moon before returning to Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to its landing destination on the near side of the Moon.

The spacecraft’s main payloads came from NASA, part of an effort to carry out experiments on the Moon more cheaply using commercial companies. Astrobotic’s launch was the first of the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments.

Peregrine took off flawlessly on January 8 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the first flight of a brand new rocket known as the Vulcan. But shortly after separating from the rocket’s second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction and the spacecraft was unable to keep its solar panels pointed toward the sun.

Astrobotic engineers managed to reorient Peregrine so that its battery could recharge. But the propellant leak made the planned moon landing impossible. The company’s current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing a propellant tank to be ruptured by a high-pressure helium flow.

Astrobotic initially estimated that Peregrine would run out of propellant and die within a few days. But as the leak slowed, the spacecraft continued to operate. All ten powered payloads, including four from NASA, were successfully powered on, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s power systems were working. (NASA’s fifth payload, a laser reflector, did not require power.) Other customer payloads, including a small rover built by Carnegie Mellon University students and experiments for German and Mexican space agencies, were also supplied.

Over the weekend, the company said the spacecraft, blown off course by the propellant leak, was on the verge of burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. The company said it decided to leave Peregrine on this trajectory to prevent the crippled spacecraft from colliding with satellites around Earth.

More and more landers are aiming for the Moon.

On Friday, a Japanese robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon, SLIM, will attempt a moon landing. Landing will occur around 10:20 a.m. Eastern Time. (It will be early Saturday morning, 12:20 a.m., in Japan.)

The next NASA-funded commercial mission, led by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could launch as early as mid-February.