An incapacitated U.S. spacecraft seems to have vanished over a secluded area in the South Pacific, likely disintegrating in the atmosphere as a fiery conclusion to its unsuccessful attempt to land on the Moon. Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology said it lost contact with its Peregrine lunar lander Thursday afternoon as it was reentering Earth’s atmosphere after ten days in space. Astrobotic had worked with NASA and other government experts to determine the best way to end the star-crossed voyage and decided letting the lander burn up was the most appropriate option.
Launched on January 8 under an experimental new partnership between NASA and private industry intended to reduce costs for American taxpayers and seed a lunar economy, Astrobotic’s Peregrine was supposed to deliver five NASA instruments to the surface of the Moon and test out lightweight rover technology. Its mission was to be the first of several under an ambitious plan called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS.
However, the mission ended before reaching the lunar surface because of a propulsion fault. Astrobotic’s engineers managed to reorient the craft so it could recharge its battery. However, the fuel was still leaking out of its ruptured oxidizer tank, and the company realized a landing would be impossible.
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Engineers commanded Peregrine to fire its thrusters for 23 short burns, shifting its trajectory and positioning it for a planned reentry into open water over the South Pacific on Thursday. But the final maneuver used more of Peregrine’s rapidly depleting oxidizer, and it was clear that the lander had no energy left to reach the Moon or safely return to Earth.
Astrobotic says its working theory is that a valve failed to close, causing a rush of high-pressure helium to flood and rupture the oxidizer tank. That sparked a chain reaction that emptied the tank and threw the spacecraft into a chaotic tumble.
Peregrine carried an array of payloads, including a laser-based instrument for studying the structure of the lunar surface. A camera was also capturing high-resolution video of the far side of the Moon, a view never before seen by human eyes.
The loss of Peregrine is a significant setback for the CLPS program and its backers, but the race to the Moon remains alive. Another private company, Intuitive Machines, has a lunar landing attempt scheduled for February and is working on a prototype of an even more capable spacecraft.
In the meantime, NASA will continue to support its partners as they strive to improve their spacecraft and figure out how to prevent further propulsion failures. The agency said it would help Astrobotic review flight data, identify what caused the propulsion problem, and plan for future missions under the program. It also will assist with further reviews of other lunar landing attempts by other companies as part of its ongoing effort to get astronauts back on the Moon.