The lunar lander suffers a ‘critical’ loss of fuel in a major setback on its way to the Moon

The lunar lander suffers a ‘critical’ loss of fuel in a major setback on its way to the Moon



CNN

Astrobotic Technology, the company that developed the first lunar lander to be launched from the United States in five decades, said its spacecraft suffered a “critical” loss of propellant while trying to right itself after encountering a major problem in space.

Just hours after launching from Florida toward the moon early Monday morning, the company announced that the spacecraft was vulnerable. The lunar lander, called Peregrine, was unable to position itself facing the sun, likely due to a propulsion problem, according to the company. The stray orientation prevented the spacecraft from charging its batteries.

The battery issue was later resolved, but Astrobotic was unable to correct the apparent problem with Peregrine’s propulsion system.

“Unfortunately, a failure within the propulsion system appears to be causing a catastrophic loss of fuel,” Astrobotic said in the mission update posted just after 1 p.m. ET. “The team is working to try to stabilize this loss, but given the current situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can collect. We are currently evaluating alternative mission profiles that may be possible at this time.”

This could mean that the company will not attempt to land the Peregrine lander on the moon, as it was expected to do on February 23.

Later on Monday, Astrobotic shared the first image of the Peregrine lander in space. The photo showed the car’s outer insulation layers wrinkled.

From Astrobotic/X

Astrobotic Technology, the company that developed the Peregrine lunar lander, shared the first image of the lander in space on January 8, 2024. The image was captured by a camera mounted above the payload surface and shows multi-layer insulation (MLI) on the surface. The exterior of the Peregrine lander in the foreground.

The deformed material was “the first visual evidence consistent with our telemetry data indicating an anomaly in the propulsion system,” the company said in a post on social media platform X at 4:12 p.m. ET. It was not clear whether the company was still thinking about a possible path to the moon or whether it was working on drawing an alternative destination for the lander.

Astrobotic was initially able to contact the rover after its launch at 2:18 a.m. ET, but then the mission hit a snag that left the rover pointed away from the sun and unable to charge its battery.

In an update issued on social media on Monday, Astrobotic said it believes the likely cause of the problem “is a propulsion anomaly that, if proven true, threatens the spacecraft’s ability to soft-land on the Moon.”

Astrobotic initially said the anomaly — a space term for a mission-threatening problem or issue — “prevented Astrobotic from achieving a consistent orientation pointing toward the sun,” the company posted on X at 9:37 a.m. ET. It added that its engineers were troubleshooting the problem in real time.

A sun-facing position is usually necessary to provide solar energy to charge the spacecraft’s batteries.

Mission controllers then “developed and executed an improvised maneuver to redirect the solar panels toward the Sun,” according to the company.

This effort has proven successful, Astrobotic said.

“The team’s improvised maneuver successfully redirected the Peregrine solar array toward the sun. We are now charging the battery,” the company said in an update posted at 12:34 p.m. ET.

However, the company said it must correct the underlying payment issue. The spacecraft would need to use its onboard thrusters — and have enough propellant — to make a soft landing on the Moon.

The lunar lander, called Peregrine after the world’s fastest bird, appears to have achieved complete success on the first leg of its journey after blasting off on a Vulcan Centaur rocket developed by the joint Lockheed Martin and Boeing United Launch Alliance.

This was the first flight ever of a Vulcan Centaur rocket, a new vehicle from ULA designed to replace the aging rocket array.

The company confirmed just after 3 a.m. ET that the Vulcan Centaur performed as expected, delivering the Peregrine lunar lander to a translunar injection orbit, according to ULA. This involves a specific engine burn, propelling the Peregrine lander onto a trajectory in Earth orbit that allows it to synchronize with the Moon about 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles) away.

The Peregrine lander is then expected to fire up its thrusters, using up to three maneuvers to determine its trajectory.

In a statement, Astrobotic said Peregrine successfully began communicating with NASA’s Deep Space Network, and activated its avionics systems, “thermal, propulsion, and power controllers, all of which are up and running as expected.”

“After the successful activation of the propulsion systems, Peregrine has entered a safe operational state,” the company said.

However, after that, the Peregrine lander experienced the “anomaly.”

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology developed Peregrine under a $108 million contract with NASA. The vehicle was designed from the beginning to be relatively cheap, with the goal of fulfilling NASA’s vision of reducing the cost of placing a robotic lander on the Moon by requiring the private sector to compete for such contracts.

Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told CNN on January 2 that he views this first launch as a test mission.

“It’s really like a 50-50 shot on target approach – where it’s really about the success of the industry, not one specific mission,” Thornton said.

Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, issued a statement Monday, saying, “Every success and setback represents opportunities to learn and grow. We will use this lesson to advance our efforts to advance the science, exploration, and commercial development of the Moon.”

NASA added in a statement that it plans to continue sharing updates as more information becomes available, and expects the space agency’s director, Bill Nelson, to make statements later today.

It is not yet clear whether it will still be possible for Astrobotic to attempt to land on Peregrine. In an interview with CNN, Thornton said the spacecraft was designed to perform three thrust maneuvers in orbit, but no more. Consuming any additional fuel will leave the vehicle without enough power to make a controlled landing.

Thornton, who previously said that this Peregrine mission cost Astrobotic more money than it made, also commented to CNN about what it would mean for the company if this mission failed.

“It will certainly have some impact on our relationships and our ability to secure additional missions in the future,” Thornton said. “It certainly won’t be the end of the business, but it will certainly be difficult.”

If the Moon mission fails, it could represent a major loss not only for Astrobotic, but also for NASA, other countries and institutions with payloads aboard the Peregrine lander.

Losing the lander so early in the mission also means Astrobotic is unable to test the lander’s ability to land on the moon’s surface.

On board Peregrine are five scientific instruments from NASA and 15 other payloads from a variety of organizations and countries. Commercial payloads on the lander include memorabilia and even human remains paid for by customers who paid to travel to the lunar surface.

In its update posted just after 4pm EST on Monday, Astrobotic said its Peregrine team “has been up and working hard for more than 24 hours.”

“We ask for your patience as we re-evaluate the data received so we can provide ongoing updates later this evening,” the statement read.

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