Astrobotic remains optimistic about the Peregrine lunar lander, despite the failure of the lander’s first mission.
Peregine launched on January 8 on the maiden flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) new Vulcan Centaur rocket. While the launch went smoothly, Peregrine suffered a propulsion malfunction just hours into its mission, resulting in a major propellant leak. It quickly became clear that Peregrine would not reach the Moon and would return to Earth, and the spacecraft eventually reentered the atmosphere and crashed over the Pacific Ocean on Thursday (January 18). Astrobotic kept the public informed throughout the mission, posting updates several times daily on how the troubled Peregrine lander was performing.
Although the mission ended early, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton is proud of Peregrine’s performance. “I know it’s very easy to focus on the failure and the one thing that failed in the spacecraft, and we’ll all be dreaming about that for a long time to come,” Thornton said during a conference call on Friday (January). 19).
“But there’s a lot that works,” Thornton continued. “And that’s something I’m very proud of. Astrobotic designed and built hardware like the avionics, software, systems engineering and other parts of the spacecraft — it all worked.”
Related: Astrobotic loses contact with the ailing Peregrine lunar lander
Thornton detailed the anomaly that doomed Peregrine, describing how the valve separating helium and oxidizer in the lander’s propulsion system did not reclose properly. This problem allowed helium to flow into the oxidizer tank, raising the pressure to the point where the tank exploded.
When the Astrobotic team realized what had happened, emotions were immediately overwhelmed at mission control, Thornton said. However, this anomaly led Astrobotic’s flight engineers to some moments of astonishing ingenuity as they performed improvised maneuvers to point the spacecraft’s solar panels toward the sun and even managed to snap a photo of Earth.
Thornton described how in order to take the image, Astrobotic mission controllers had to rotate the spacecraft so that the strut blocked the sun in the camera lens, and compared it to using a single finger to block the sun from the field of view.
“That was a big emotional moment,” Thornton said. “Because I think that represents the best of Astrobotic.”
Mission controllers were also able to use the stricken lander’s propellant leak to help them adjust the craft for a safe return over the Pacific Ocean, Thornton added. “And the final maneuver was very clever, because they identified the leak at that point and figured out that if we could turn the spacecraft around, we could actually use the leak to our advantage as a small continuous propulsion maneuver that could push us further out into the ocean.”
The decision to put Peregrine on a course to re-enter over the ocean was not made lightly. Thornton said the company studied the benefits of trying to keep the lander on track, but in the end it proved too risky and had the potential to create dangerous space debris.
“In theory, we probably could have orbited the Earth and possibly returned to the Moon,” Thornton said during the conference call. “At that point, it was anyone’s guess what might happen next.” “Maybe we could have had an impact. Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon. Maybe we would have had enough fuel to get into lunar orbit.”
“It’s really the virtual world. At that point, we don’t really know what was going to happen next.”
Some final shots of @astrobotic’s Peregrine lander firing its thrusters on its way back. Recorded today from our station in Australia between 17:32 and 18:32 UTC pic.twitter.com/INsHCzKpeeJanuary 18, 2024
Some of Peregrine’s payloads also performed well despite not reaching their final destination. A radiation detector built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) was able to collect 92 hours of data on the radiation environment in lunar space, and two instruments built by NASA, the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) and the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), were also We were able to take measurements of this radiation during Peregrine’s flight.
But many payloads have never been able to fulfill their intended uses, such as multiple lunar rovers on board or controversial commemorative payloads containing human remains. Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development at Astrobotic, thanked the payload teams for their support during the mission, emphasizing that customers “know all the challenges and risks involved in a lunar mission and how difficult it is to put a spacecraft on the Moon.” .
“When they sat at the table, they understood it implicitly, but we weren’t taking any chances,” Hendrickson said. “We identified and explained all of those challenges and risks as they existed.” “And to their credit, they are still scoring.”
Peregrine was the first mission contracted by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which aims to accelerate lunar science by partnering with private companies like Astrobotic to place science experiments on the Moon.
Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, added that “failure is often part of the path to success” and that the agency remains committed to CLPS despite Peregrine’s fate. “We embrace a risk-taking attitude (in which) new companies will innovate, push boundaries, and we will all learn and grow from every journey,” Kearns said during today’s press conference.
The next mission contracted under CLPS will be launched soon: The Nova-C lander built by Houston-based Intuitive Machines is scheduled to launch toward the moon aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in mid-February.