Astrobotic Technology, the developer of the first lunar lander launched from the United States in five decades, said it would abandon efforts to put its Peregrine spacecraft on the moon within 24 hours of the vehicle's liftoff.
The agency said the spacecraft had suffered a “significant” loss of propellant due to a fuel leak.
Hours after the rover was launched from Florida early Monday morning, the astrobotic mission announced it was in jeopardy. The lunar lander, known as Peregrine, was unable to position itself to face the Sun, possibly due to a propulsion problem, according to Astrobotic. That diversion prevented the spacecraft from charging its batteries.
The battery problem was later resolved, but Astrobotics was unable to fix an apparent problem with the Peregrine lander's propulsion system.
In a statement Monday evening, the fuel leak caused the thrusters of the Peregrine lander's attitude control system — which is designed to precisely align the 6-foot-tall box-shaped lander while in space — “to function poorly. They can protect the lander from uncontrolled descent beyond their expected service life cycles.
Astrobotic added that the thrusters will remain operational for a maximum of 40 more hours.
“At this point, the goal is to get Peregrine as close to lunar distance as we can before it loses its ability to maintain its sun-pointing position and loses power,” the agency said.
That means the planned February 23rd moon landing is off the table.
Astrobotic had already warned that a “propulsion system failure” was draining the vehicle's fuel shortly after 1 p.m. ET. But the company worked for hours Monday to confirm the problem and evaluate options.
At some point on Monday afternoon, Astrobotic also shared the first image of the Peregrine lander in space. The photograph shows that the outer layers of the vehicle's insulation have shrunk.
Astrobotic Technology, the developer of the Peregrine Lunar Lander, has shared the first image of the January 8, 2024, landing in space. The image was captured by a camera mounted on top of the payload deck and shows the multi-layer insulation (MLI). Exterior of Peregrine lander in foreground.
The wrecked object is “the first visual clue consistent with our telemetry data pointing to a propulsion system anomaly,” the company said in a post on social media platform X at 4:12 p.m. ET Monday.
After liftoff at 2:18 a.m. aboard a Vulcan Centaur rocket developed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing Venture United Launch, the lunar lander Peregrine successfully completed the first leg of its journey. alliance
It was the first flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket, ULA's new vehicle designed to replace its older rockets.
Vulcan Centaur performed as expected, sending the Peregrine lunar lander into a trans-lunar injection orbit, the agency confirmed just after 3 a.m. According to the ULA. It involved a precisely timed engine burn that pushed the Peregrine lander into a path in Earth orbit that would allow it to synchronize with the Moon at a distance of 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles).
The Peregrine lander was expected to fire its own internal thrusters, using three maneuvers to mark its trajectory.
In a statement, Peregrine successfully began communicating with NASA's deep space network, activated its avionics systems, and “thermal, thrust and power controls are all operational and operating as expected,” Astrobotic said.
“After successful activation of propulsion systems, Peregrine entered a safe operational state,” the company said.
Only then, however, did the Peregrine lander experience “hostility,” causing the vehicle to drift away from the Sun and unable to charge its battery.
Mission controllers then “developed and executed an improved maneuver to reorient the solar panels toward the Sun,” according to Astrobotic.
They accomplished that goal.
“The team's improved maneuver was successful in reorienting Peregrine's solar array towards the Sun. We are now charging the battery,” the company said in an update. Published 12:34 pm ET.
However, Astrobotic said the basic propulsion problem needs to be fixed. The spacecraft must use its internal thrusters — and have enough thrust left — to make a soft touchdown on the moon.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology developed Peregrine under a $108 million contract with NASA. The vehicle was designed from the outset to be relatively inexpensive — aimed at fulfilling NASA's vision of lowering the cost of putting a robotic lander on the moon, which has asked the private sector to compete for such contracts.
Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told CNN on January 2 that he considered this first launch a test mission.
“It's really like a 50-50 shot at targeting approach — it's about winning the industry, not any particular mission,” Thornton said.
Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Operations Directorate, released a statement Monday saying, “Every success and setback is an opportunity to learn and grow. We will use this lesson to fuel our efforts to advance lunar science, exploration and commercial development.
Thornton, who previously said the Peregrine mission cost Astrobotic more money than it made, noted to CNN what a failure of the mission would mean for the company.
“It's certainly going to have some impact on our relationships and our ability to secure additional work in the future,” Thornton said. “It's certainly not going to be the end of the business, but it's certainly going to be challenging.”
Abandoning its lunar landing effort represents a huge loss not only for Astrobot, but also for NASA and other countries and organizations that have payloads on the Peregrine lander.
The company will not be able to test the landing maneuver, which – in previous lunar landing attempts by various countries and companies – has proven to be the most difficult step in the journey.
Peregrine carries five NASA science instruments and 15 payloads from various organizations and countries. Commercial payloads on the lander included relics and even human remains that customers had paid to send to the lunar surface.