Peregrine in Peril: Lunar Lander Losing Propellant

Peregrine in Peril: Lunar Lander Losing Propellant

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is in trouble. Just hours after separating from the rocket that successfully sent it into space, a propulsion failure doomed the mission. Peregrine was to be the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the Moon since Apollo and the first U.S. commercial lunar lander. NASA is being philosophical about the problems with this first of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services missions. The next in the series, from another company, is scheduled to launch in mid-February. [Updated January 8, 10:50 pm ET]

Almost before the cheering stopped for the completely successful inaugural launch of the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, problems developed for Peregrine.

The commercial lunar lander built by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic successfully separated from the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage about 50 minutes after the 2:18 am ET launch this morning. Astrobotic quickly confirmed communications were established.

About 9:30 am ET, however, Astrobotic issued an update that an anomaly occurred and Peregrine was not able to achieve a stable sun-pointing orientation. That meant the solar panels couldn’t recharge the batteries and they were running low on power.

Two hours later, another update warned the battery was “reaching operationally low levels.” Just before the spacecraft was to enter a communications blackout period, they commanded “an improvised maneuver to reorient the solar panels” and were waiting for communications to resume to see if it worked. More ominously, they said they thought the anomaly “if proven true, threatens the ability of the spacecraft to soft land on the Moon.”

Subsequent updates shared good news that reorienting the spacecraft worked and the batteries were recharging, but the propulsion system was experiencing a “critical loss of propellant.”

Update #4 for Peregrine Mission One:

The fifth update included the first image returned from the spacecraft, but Astrobotic said they could see indications that confirmed telemetry readings that point “to a propulsion system anomaly.”

The propulsion system is needed not only to get to the Moon, but to enter orbit, descend, and land.

As of 5:30 pm ET January 8, the company had not declared that they would not be able to meet that goal, but the signs clearly are worrisome.

UPDATE:  In their sixth update at 9:16 pm ET January 8, Astrobotic acknowledged they will not be able to land on the Moon. The Attitude Control Thrusters are operating beyond their service life cycles just to keep the spacecraft stable and pointing to the Sun. At the current rate of expenditure, they will run out of fuel in about 40 hours. The goal now is to get as close to the Moon as possible during that time.

Astrobotic is one of several companies working with NASA through Public-Private Partnerships to get NASA payloads to the lunar surface on a commercial basis. The companies design, build and own the landers and procure launch services. NASA buys delivery services and expects the companies to find non-NASA customers to close the business case.

NASA is one of 17 customers on Peregrine, for example, with five science experiments aboard. NASA’s contract with Astrobotic for this mission is $108 million. Astrobotic is also building a larger lander, Griffin, that will take a much more expensive NASA payload, the VIPER rover, to the Moon. It’s too early to tell what effect this anomaly will have on that mission, which is scheduled to launch at the end of this year.

Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration for the Science Mission Directorate, who oversees the CLPS program, issued a statement after Astrobotic’s second update.

“Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow. We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration, and commercial development of the Moon.” — Joel Kearns, NASA

Peregrine is the first of as many as six CLPS missions headed to the Moon this year: a second Astrobotic mission to take NASA’s VIPER to the Moon on its larger Griffin lander, one from Firefly, and three from Intuitive Machines. The first IM launch is scheduled for next month.

Then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Thomas Zurbuchen, then head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said when the CLPS program was created in 2018 that NASA recognized the risks and accepted they were taking “shots on goal” and a 50-50 success rate was acceptable. Hopefully the odds will balance out with the later missions.

The track record for landers built by anyone other than space agencies is not promising, however, and even space agencies are not immune from the heartbreak of failure.

New technologies make robotic landers much smaller than those launched by the United States and Soviet Union in the early days of the space program and by China more recently attractive from a cost standpoint even though they are significantly less robust and have limited capabilities. The low-cost approach adds risk, however, and only one has succeeded so far.

An Israeli non-profit, SpaceIL, and the Indian government were the first to try in 2019. Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 both failed in the final stages of landing.

In 2022, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a tiny cubesat, Outstanding MOon exploration TEchnologies demonstrated by NAno Semi-Hard Impactor (OMONTENASHI), that was to land on the Moon as one of the 10 cubesats on NASA’s Artemis I uncrewed test flight in 2022.  It also carried a 700 gram baseball-like transformer rover developed by JAXA and the toy company Takara Tomy. They could not establish stable communications with the cubesat. (Most of the 10 cubesats failed.)

Also in 2022, a Japanese commercial company, ispace, launched the HAKUTO-R M1 small lander with a very small (10 kilogram) UAE rover. It arrived at the Moon in April 2023, but like Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2, failed just before landing.

Even Russia, which launched several successful landers and rovers in the 1960s and 1970s, didn’t make it.  Luna-25 failed in August 2023 when its engines fired longer than planned when lowering its orbit around the Moon in preparation for landing and it crashed. Luna-25 was not one of the small “new space” landers like the others in this list, but failed nonetheless.

Finally, some good news arrived just a few days later: the first success for a small lander, India’s second try with Chandrayaan-3.

The long list of failures has not been a deterrent.

JAXA launched the Small Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) in September and it’s scheduled to make its attempt at landing two weeks from now on January 19 EST (January 20 in Japan). Japan’s ispace has two more HAKUTO-Rs in development and NASA’s CLPS contractors have missions not just this year, but in 2025 and 2026 as well.

NASA hopes to put astronauts back on the lunar surface in late 2025 (though many are skeptical that date is achievable), but until then, the robotic landers and rovers, however many make it safely to the surface, have the place to themselves.

This article was updated.

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