Astrobotic's Peregrine Moon lander burns up in Earth's atmosphere

Jan. 19: This article has been updated to include information from a press conference the day after it was first published.

A spacecraft headed for the moon's surface burned up in the planet's atmosphere Thursday afternoon, ending up back on Earth instead.

Pittsburgh's astrobotic technology announced A post on X social network It lost contact with its Peregrine lunar lander at 3:50 PM ET, marking its entry into Earth's atmosphere over the South Pacific at 4:04 PM ET.

On Friday, the US Space Command confirmed the destruction of the Peregrine. Astrobotic will assemble a review team of space industry experts to determine what went wrong.

It was a deliberate, disappointing end to a mission that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, passing the moon's orbit before heading back toward Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to the lunar landing site.

The spacecraft's main payloads came from NASA, part of an effort to use commercial companies to conduct lunar experiments at low cost. Astrobotic's launch is the first in a program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotics $108 million to carry five experiments at a cost of $9 million.

Peregrine launched flawlessly on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the first flight of a brand new rocket called Vulcan. But shortly after it separated from the rocket's second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction, and the spacecraft was unable to keep its solar panels pointed at the Sun.

Astrobotic's engineers were able to rewire the Peregrine so that its battery could recharge. But a leak of propellant made the planned moon landing impossible. The company's current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing a high-pressure flow of helium to rupture a propellant tank.

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Astrobotic initially estimated that the peregrine would run out of propellant and die within two days. But as the leak subsided, the shuttle continued to operate. All 10 powered payloads, including NASA's four, were successfully launched, demonstrating that the spacecraft's power systems worked. (A fifth NASA payload, a laser reflector, required no power.) Other customer payloads were launched, including a small rover developed by Carnegie Mellon University students and experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies.

“After that anomaly, we've had success after success, showing that the spacecraft is working in space,” John Thornton, Astrobotic's chief executive, said during a news conference Friday.

Over the weekend, the agency said the spacecraft had been diverted by a propellant leak and was on track to burn up in Earth's atmosphere. The agency said it decided to put Peregrine on that path to prevent the crippled spacecraft from colliding with satellites around Earth.

And the landers are aiming for the moon.

On Friday, SLIM, a robotic Japanese spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, landed on the moon, although it did not operate due to problems with its solar array.

The next NASA-funded commercial mission of Houston's Intuitive Engine could launch as soon as mid-February.

Astrobotic has a NASA contract to carry the largest payload to the moon: the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. VIPER will orbit the moon's south pole, including entering the permanently shadowed craters, the coldest places in the solar system. The mission is to gather vital scientific intelligence before the astronauts get there.

NASA experiments on Peregrine cost $9 million, VIPER will cost more than $430 million to build and operate, and it will ride aboard Astrobotic's large lander, Griffin.

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The VIPER mission is currently scheduled to launch in November, but that would mean flying a major, expensive vehicle on an unproven spacecraft from a company that has yet to successfully land on the moon.

Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration of NASA's Science Directorate, said during a news conference Friday that he wants to see the results of an investigation into what went wrong with Peregrine before deciding whether to make any changes to the contract with Astrobotic. Viper.

“We want to make sure we really understand the root cause and the contributing factors of what happened in the peregrine, and if we need to change our plans for the griffin,” Dr Kearns said.

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