The first NASA-funded commercial mission to send a robotic spacecraft to the surface of the Moon probably won’t get there.
The lunar lander, named Peregrine and built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, encountered problems shortly after liftoff early Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch of the rocket, a brand new model named Vulcan, went smoothly, successfully sending Pèlerin on its journey.
But a failure in the lander’s propulsion system exhausted its propellant and most likely ended the mission’s initial lunar ambitions.
“The team is working to stabilize the loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture. » Astrobotics said in a report. “We are currently evaluating what alternative mission profiles might be feasible at this time.”
The failure raises questions about NASA’s strategy of relying on private companies, mostly small startups, to conduct science experiments on the lunar surface. These scientific studies are part of the space agency’s preparations before sending astronauts back to the Moon as part of its Artemis program.
“Every success and every setback is an opportunity to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
Peregrine was the first of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program missions to take off. Since CLPS was announced in 2018, NASA officials have said they were willing to take more risks in exchange for lower costs and expected some missions to fail.
Thomas Zurbuchen, then associate administrator for science at NASA, made a hockey analogy: Each CLPS mission is like a shootout, and if costs are lower, there will be more shootouts even if all shots will not score. .
This contrasts with the lunar program of the 1960s, before which NASA had built a series of its own robotic lunar landers. But this approach is expensive, and this time NASA wanted to encourage private industry to come up with their own solutions that would be cheaper and could create a new market for universities, companies and space agencies in other countries that want to send payloads to space. moon.
For the Peregrine mission, NASA was the primary customer, paying Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments. The mission also carried various other payloads, including a small rover built by Carnegie Mellon University students, experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies, and souvenirs.
Yet getting to the Moon on a budget proved more difficult than many thought.
The Peregrine spacecraft launched at 2:18 a.m. Eastern Time on Monday. Fifty minutes later, it was successfully sent into a highly elliptical Earth orbit. All of its systems were successfully powered on. To allow time to diagnose any problems, Astrobotic designed the trajectory so that the craft would make a loop and a half around the Earth before entering orbit around the Moon about two and a half weeks after launch.
However, a few hours after launch, Astrobotic reported on the social media service that the spacecraft was having difficulty keeping its solar panels pointed at the sun to generate electricity, indicating a likely malfunction in the propulsion system.
An improvised maneuver managed to reorient the solar panels towards the sun, allowing the battery to charge. However, the loss of propellant prevented the moon landing objective.
Astrobotic was the third private entity to attempt to send a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon, and the third is likely to fail.
In 2019, Beresheet, a spacecraft built by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, crashed when its engine was inadvertently shut down while the spacecraft was still far above the surface.
Last year, a lander sent by private Japanese company Ispace misjudged its altitude due to a software glitch, then plummeted to destruction after running out of fuel.
Astrobotic, SpaceIL and Ispace all came from teams seeking to win the $20 million grand prize in the Google Lunar X Prize competition for the first private company to reach the surface of the Moon. The competition, announced with great fanfare in 2007, ended peacefully in 2018, without any of the teams reaching space.
Astrobotic and Ispace turned to investors who believed sending experiments and other payloads to the Moon could become a profitable business, while SpaceIL received continued funding from Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur , and other backers to complete Beresheet and launch it.
The next CLPS mission, led by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could be launched as early as mid-February, towards a region near the south pole of the Moon.
Astrobotic has a contract for a second mission, using a larger lander called Griffin, to take NASA’s VIPER robotic rover to explore a shadowed crater at the lunar south pole. With the failure of Peregrine, NASA may now reconsider this mission.
Government space agencies have also experienced mixed results. An Indian lander crashed in 2019, but a new attempt was successful last year. Luna-25, the first Russian spacecraft to head to the Moon since the 1970s, crashed last year.
The only country with an impeccable lunar record this century is China, which has successfully landed three robotic spacecraft on the Moon since 2013. It is expected to launch a fourth, on the far side of the Moon, later this year. JAXA, the Japanese government space agency, also plans to land a small experimental lunar vehicle on the surface on January 20.
Peregrine’s failure leaves aside, for now, a protest from Navajo Nation leaders.
Celestis, a company that memorializes people by sending some of their ashes or DNA into space, and another that provides similar services, Elysium Space, had payloads on the Astrobotic spacecraft. In a letter to NASA and the United States Department of Transportation, Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, had requested that the launch be delayed because many Native Americans consider the moon sacred.
“Depositing human remains and other materials, which might be perceived as waste elsewhere, on the Moon amounts to a desecration of this sacred space,” Nygren wrote.