Moon Lander Malfunctions After Launch, Raising Questions for NASA

The first NASA-financed commercial mission to send a robotic spacecraft to the surface of the moon will most likely not be able to make it there.

The lunar lander, named Peregrine and built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, encountered problems shortly after it lifted off early Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch of the rocket, a brand-new design named Vulcan, was flawless, successfully sending Peregrine on its journey.

But a failure in the lander’s propulsion system depleted its propellant and most likely ended the mission’s original lunar ambitions.

“The team is working to try and stabilize the loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” Astrobotic said in a statement. “We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”

The failure raises questions about NASA’s strategy of relying on private companies, mostly small startups, for getting science experiments to the lunar surface. Those scientific studies are part of the space agency’s preparations ahead of sending astronauts back to the moon under its Artemis program.

“Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s science mission directorate, said in a statement.

Peregrine was the first of the missions under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, to get off the ground. Ever since CLPS was announced in 2018, NASA officials have said that they are willing to take greater risks in exchange for lower costs and that they expect some of the missions to fail.

Thomas Zurbuchen, then the associate administrator for science at NASA, made a hockey analogy — each CLPS mission is like a shot on goal, and if the costs are lower, there will be more shots on goal even though not all of the shots will score.

That is in contrast to the moon program of the 1960s, before which NASA built a series of its own robotic lunar landers. But that approach is expensive, and this time NASA wanted to encourage private industry to come up with its own solutions that would be cheaper and might create a new market for universities, businesses and the space agencies of other nations that want to send payloads to the moon.

For the Peregrine mission, NASA was the primary customer, paying $108 million to Astrobotic to transport five experiments. The mission also carried a variety of other payloads, including a small rover built by students at Carnegie Mellon University, experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies and mementos.

Still, getting to the moon on a low budget has proved more difficult than many thought it would be.

The Peregrine spacecraft launched at 2:18 a.m. Eastern time on Monday. Fifty minutes later, it was successfully sent on its way along a highly elliptical Earth orbit. All of its systems were successfully powered on. To give time to diagnose any problems, Astrobotic designed the trajectory so the craft would make one and a half loops around Earth before entering orbit around the moon about two and a half weeks after it launched.

However, a few hours after launch, Astrobotic reported on the social media service X that the spacecraft was having trouble keeping its solar panels pointed at the sun to generate power, pointing to a likely malfunction in the propulsion system.

An improvised maneuver succeeded in reorienting the solar panels back toward the sun, allowing the battery to charge. However, the loss of propellant meant the moon-landing objective could not be achieved.

Astrobotic was the third private entity to try to send a spacecraft toward the surface of the moon, and is most likely the third to fail.

In 2019, Beresheet, a spacecraft built by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, crashed when its engine was inadvertently shut off while the spacecraft was still far above the surface.

Last year, a lander sent by the private Japanese firm Ispace misjudged its altitude because of a software glitch and then plummeted to its destruction after it ran out of fuel.

Astrobotic, SpaceIL and Ispace all grew out of teams that had sought to win the $20 million grand prize in the Google Lunar X Prize competition for the first private venture to make it to the surface of the moon. The competition, announced with fanfare in 2007, came to a quiet end in 2018 without any of the teams even getting to space.

Astrobotic and Ispace pivoted to seeking investors who believed sending experiments and other payloads to the moon could become a profitable business, while SpaceIL received continued financing from Morris Kahn, an Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur, and other backers to finish Beresheet and launch it.

The next CLPS mission, by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could launch as soon as mid-February, headed toward a region near the moon’s south pole.

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 that mission.

Governmental space agencies have also experienced mixed results. An Indian lander crashed in 2019, but a repeat attempt succeeded last year. Luna-25, the first Russian spacecraft to head to the moon since the 1970s, crashed last year.

The only country with an unblemished 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, to the lunar far side, later this year. JAXA, the Japanese government space agency, also plans to land a small, experimental lunar vehicle on the surface on Jan. 20.

The failure of Peregrine sets aside, for now, a protest from the leaders of the Navajo Nation.

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 asked for the launch to be delayed, because many Native Americans regard the moon as sacred.

“The act of depositing human remains and other materials, which could be perceived as discards in any other location, on the Moon is tantamount to desecration of this sacred space,” Mr. Nygren wrote.

You may also like...