Private U.S. Lunar Lander Suffers ‘Critical’ Anomaly after Launch

Private U.S. Lunar Lander Suffers ‘Critical’ Anomaly after Launch

A private U.S. company’s historic attempt to land a spacecraft on the moon has fallen into serious jeopardy after an anomaly in the spacecraft’s propulsion system.

Called Peregrine, the craft was built by the Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic and carries six NASA instruments, along with 15 other payloads from various public and private clients. It launched under the banner of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which is trying to encourage private companies to take over the routine delivery of supplies and scientific instruments to the moon. Astrobotic had been angling to become the first commercial company in history to softly land a spacecraft on another celestial body.

At 2:18 A.M. EST on Monday, United Launch Alliance performed the first-ever launch of its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, atop which Peregrine sat. Mere hours after the flawless launch, however, Astrobotic announced that—following a successful separation from the rocket and a power-up of many of the Peregrine’s systems—the spacecraft couldn’t stably orient itself toward the sun because of a problem with its propulsion system.

That development bodes ill for Peregrine. Without pointing at the sun, the spacecraft can’t use its solar panels to charge its onboard battery, and propulsion issues could foreclose any chance for the spacecraft to reach the surface of the moon.

Just before Peregrine entered a known radio communications blackout period, Astrobotic engineers reportedly improvised a command to the spacecraft to reorient its solar panels. The maneuver succeeded and let Peregrine charge its batteries. But by that point, the spacecraft had suffered what Astrobotic called “a critical loss of propellant.”

While Peregrine is currently operational, the anomaly—now diagnosed as an “ongoing propellant leak”—is forcing small on-board thrusters to continuously fire to prevent the spacecraft from tumbling end-over-end, all but foreclosing any chance of the mission reaching the moon. “If the thrusters can continue to operate, we believe the spacecraft could continue in a stable sun-pointing state for approximately 40 more hours, based on current fuel consumption,” Astrobotic said in a statement issued at 9:16 P.M. EST on Monday. “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.”

NASA is bracing for Peregrine to fall far short of its primary objective. “Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement circulated by NASA. “We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration, and commercial development of the Moon.”

“Spaceflight is a daring adventure, and [Astrobotic] is making progress for CLPS deliveries and Artemis,” added NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a separate post on X (formerly Twitter). “[NASA] will continue to expand our reach in the cosmos with our commercial partners.”

Lower Costs, Higher Risks

The mission marks the first major test for CLPS, a program created in 2018 that will pay out as much as $2.6 billion through 2028 to private companies for lunar delivery services. NASA hopes to save substantial money through the program while also catalyzing more commercial activity on and around the moon. In 2019 the agency paid Astrobotic $79.5 million to fly instruments onboard Peregrine Mission 1, far less than the agency historically would have spent on developing and operating its own lunar lander.

CLPS’s private nature is already highlighting the uncertain Wild West nature of humankind’s newly commercial return to the moon. Unlike a traditional NASA mission, where the agency owns and operates its spacecraft, under CLPS, NASA has little say as to what else flies onboard. Peregrine’s non-NASA payloads cover the gamut, ranging from a physical Bitcoin to portions of human remains. Late last December, the Navajo Nation requested that U.S. officials delay Peregrine’s launch amid concerns that landing the remains would desecrate the moon, which the Diné (the Navajo people) consider sacred.

And in exchange for lower costs, NASA knew it was taking on increased risk of losing any one CLPS mission. As Scientific American has previously reported, only about five out of every nine attempted moon missions have succeeded historically, and no commercial spacecraft has safely landed on another celestial body yet. Peregrine Mission 1 is Astrobotic’s first mission.

“The disappointment of Peregrine now having an anomaly, while it is unfortunate, was not unexpected. I had braced myself for the prospect of failure,” says Laura Forczyk, founder of the space industry consulting firm Astralytical.

The nascent lunar delivery industry, Astrobotic included, is also acutely aware of the risks it has taken on. “Personally speaking, it will be gutting if that happens, if there’s anomalies, for how much work and effort that people put into these programs…. But big picture, it’s important to keep in mind that CLPS has awarded about 10 of these missions to go to the surface of the moon,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told Scientific American in December. “Even if half of them succeed, that’s a wild success.”

Regardless of whether Peregrine recovers, the moon will remain busy. Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon (SLIM), which will test new precision landing technologies, has been in lunar orbit since December 25, 2023, and will attempt to land on the moon on the morning of January 19 EST. 

The next CLPS mission is also waiting in the wings: IM-1, operated by the Houston, Tex–based company Intuitive Machines. No sooner than mid-February, the company will launch its hexagonal Nova-C lander atop a SpaceX Falcon 9. The lander is carrying 11 total payloads—five for NASA and six for others —and will attempt a landing at Malapert A, a crater in the moon’s south polar region. If IM-1 succeeds, the mission will mark the first commercial soft landing on another celestial body, as well as just the second soft landing in the lunar south pole region.

Astrobotic already has another mission in the works. As soon as this November, the company is slated to carry NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) rover to the moon’s southern latitudes, where it will sniff out water crucial to fulfilling the agency’s goals under the Artemis program: to return humans to the moon for the long term.

“When you think about the future of the Artemis program, this is just the very beginning,” Forczyk says. “These robotic landers are the initial steps.”

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