Astrobotic Technology, the company that developed the first lunar lander to launch from the United States in five decades, said it is abandoning an attempt to put its Peregrine spacecraft on the moon less than 24 hours after the vehicle took flight.
The spacecraft has suffered “critical” propellant loss from a fuel leak, according to the company.
Just hours after the vehicle launched from Florida toward the moon early Monday morning, Astrobotic announced the mission was in jeopardy. The lunar lander, dubbed Peregrine, was unable to place itself in a position facing the sun, likely because of a propulsion issue, according to Astrobotic. That wayward orientation prevented the spacecraft from charging its batteries.
The battery issue was later resolved, but Astrobotic was not able to correct the apparent issue with the Peregrine lander’s propulsion system.
In a statement late Monday evening, the company said a fuel leak is causing the thrusters of Peregrine lander’s attitude control system — which are designed to precisely align the 6-foot-tall box-shaped lander while in space — have had to “operate well beyond their expected service life cycles to keep the lander from an uncontrollable tumble.”
Astrobotic added that the thrusters could likely only operate for 40 more hours at most.
“At this time, the goal is to get Peregrine as close to lunar distance as we can before it loses the ability to maintain its sun-pointing position and subsequently loses power,” according to the company.
That means a potential moon landing, which had been slated for February 23, is off the table.
Astrobotic had already warned just after 1 p.m. ET that a “failure within the propulsion system” was draining the vehicle’s fuel. But the company worked for hours Monday to attempt to stabilize the issue and assess options.
At one point Monday afternoon, Astrobotic also shared the first image of the Peregrine lander in space. The photograph showed that the outer layers of insulation on the vehicle were crinkled.
The distorted material was “the first visual clue that aligns with our telemetry data pointing to a propulsion system anomaly,” the company said in a post on the social media platform X at 4:12 p.m. ET on Monday.
From launch to a lunar trajectory
The lunar lander, called Peregrine after the fastest bird in the world, appeared to have a wholly successful first leg of its trip after lifting off at 2:18 a.m. ET atop a Vulcan Centaur rocket developed by the joint Lockheed Martin and Boeing venture United Launch Alliance.
It was the first ever flight of a Vulcan Centaur rocket, a new vehicle from ULA designed to replace its older lineup of rockets.
The company confirmed just after 3 a.m. ET that the Vulcan Centaur performed as expected, delivering the Peregrine lunar lander into a trans-lunar injection orbit, according to ULA. That involves a precisely timed engine burn that pushed the Peregrine lander onto a path in Earth’s orbit that should allow it to sync up with the moon some 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles) away.
The Peregrine lander was then expected to fire up its own onboard thrusters, using up to three maneuvers to pinpoint its path.
In a statement, Astrobotic said that Peregrine successfully began communicating with NASA’s Deep Space Network, activated its avionics systems, and “the thermal, propulsion, and power controllers, all powered on and performed as expected.”
“After successful propulsion systems activation, Peregrine entered a safe operational state,” the company said.
It was after that, however, that the Peregrine lander experienced the “anomaly” that left the vehicle pointed away from the sun and unable to charge its battery.
Mission controllers then “developed and executed an improvised maneuver to reorient the solar panels toward the Sun,” according to Astrobotic.
They accomplished that goal.
“The team’s improvised maneuver was successful in reorienting Peregrine’s solar array towards the Sun. We are now charging the battery,” the company said in an update posted at 12:34 p.m. ET.
Still, Astrobotic said it must correct the underlying propulsion issue. The spacecraft would need to use its onboard thrusters — and have enough propellant left over — to make a soft touchdown on the moon.
Peregrine mission stakes
Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic Technology developed Peregrine under a $108 million contract with NASA. The vehicle was designed from the outset to be relatively cheap — aiming to fulfill NASA’s vision to reduce the cost of putting a robotic lander on the moon by asking the private sector to compete for such contracts.
“This really is like a 50-50 shots on goal kind of an approach — where it’s really more about the industry succeeding, not any specific one mission,” Thornton said.
Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, issued a statement Monday, saying, “Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow. We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration, and commercial development of the Moon.”
“It’s certainly going to have some some impact on our relationships and our ability to to secure additional missions in the future,” Thornton said. “It certainly wouldn’t be the end of the business, but it would certainly be challenging.”
Abandoning its lunar landing attempt marks a major loss not only for Astrobotic, but also for NASA and other countries and institutions with payloads aboard the Peregrine lander.
The company will not be able to test a landing maneuver, which — in previous lunar landing attempts made by various countries and corporations — has proven an exceedingly difficult step in the journey.
On board the Peregrine vehicle are five scientific instruments from NASA and 15 other payloads from a variety of organizations and countries. The commercial payloads on the lander include mementos and even human remains that customers had paid to send to the lunar surface.