- By Jonathan Amos
- Science reporter
The US company, which launched a mission to attempt a soft landing on the moon on Monday, says it may not be able to control its spacecraft for much longer.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is battling a fuel leak from its Peregrine lander that makes it difficult to maintain the spacecraft's stationary point.
Work life can now be measured in hours, the company said.
Of course, a touchdown on the lunar surface — the first for America in half a century — is no longer possible.
“At this time the goal is to get as close to lunar distance as we can before Peregrine loses its ability to maintain a sun-pointing position and then loses power,” the astrobotic report reads.
The 1.2-ton lander launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the goal of landing on the moon's northern hemisphere in late February.
The US space agency (NASA) has acquired five instruments on the lander to study the lunar surface environment ahead of sending astronauts there later this decade.
Peregrine ran into trouble as soon as it came off the top of its launch rocket.
Engineers noticed that the Moon Lander was struggling to point its solar panels in the direction of the Sun to charge its batteries.
A major leak in the propulsion system threw the Peregrine out of alignment.
Peregrine's thrusters now have to work overtime to maintain proper orientation in flight, using up even more of the dwindling fuel supply.
Astrobotic calculates that it has less than two days of propellant left before the supply runs out and the spacecraft begins to fall.
When that moment comes, the Peregrine, whose solar panels will no longer collect sunlight, will quickly lose power.
Astrobotic is the first of three U.S. companies to send a lander to the moon this year under a new private-public partnership with NASA.
The agency buys transportation services from the Pittsburgh company and two other business ventures — Intuitive Machines and Firefly. Together, the trio planned six trips to the lunar surface by 2024. Astrobotic should deliver a NASA rover to Earth's natural satellite later this year.
All three American companies may have NASA as their lead “customer,” but the agency is not responsible for their programs. The companies that designed the spacecraft are in command as missions progress. And companies can sell additional payload space to anyone willing to buy it.
Peregrine, for example, carries some mini rovers to American and Mexican groups. It also carries a cargo of humans, and even a dog is on board. The small capsules contain the ashes of tens of thousands of people, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel, who was the voice of the computer on the USS Enterprise.
NASA hopes its new lunar partnership with the private sector will introduce more innovation and reduce costs over time. The agency says it's willing to make some of these missions redundant.
Speaking to the BBC last month, deputy chief executive Pam Melroy said: “What we have learned from our business partners is that if there is a high enough qualification, we can relax some of the requirements that make it very expensive and high risk. If they fail, the next person learns and succeeds.”
It will certainly be frustrating for everyone involved in the Peregrine project to see it fail.
Dr. Simeon Barber of the Open University, England, led the development of the sensor on a NASA instrument on board the spacecraft. He told BBC News: “We started work on this particular project in 2019; it's been four years. The instrument was developed through an epidemic; it was difficult. This new way of exploring space comes with inherent risks. We know it's difficult. We need to get things right the first time. must be done. Therefore, the whole point of future trips to the moon is to increase the chances of success.”