Towering lander: US moon mission headed for fiery destruction

  • Written by Jonathan Amos
  • Science Reporter

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The peregrine falcon looks toward the Earth's crescent, at the top right

The American company that hoped to land on the moon will return its mission back home in the coming hours.

Astrobotic says its Peregrine spacecraft will be directed to reenter Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

The lander suffered a major propellant leak shortly after its launch from Florida on a Vulcan rocket last week.

Although engineers were able to stabilize the situation, the loss of the oxidizer meant that a safe landing on the moon's surface could never be attempted.

The Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic decided to dispose of the vehicle, rather than leave it wandering aimlessly in space, posing a collision risk.

“Astrobotic positioned the Peregrine spacecraft for a safe and controlled return to Earth over a remote area in the South Pacific Ocean. The team has been constantly monitoring our reentry analysis with [the US space agency, Nasa]“, the company said in its latest mission update.

“We expect re-entry to occur at approximately 16:00 Thursday 18 January EST (21:00 GMT).”

Astrobotic's goal was to send five NASA instruments to the lunar surface to study the local environment before the astronauts returned later this decade.

If Peregrine had managed to land successfully, it would have been the first American mission to do so in half a century, and the first private project ever to achieve the feat.

Only government agencies from the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and India have managed a lunar landing so far.

But Astrobotic can console itself with what it managed to achieve in a difficult situation.

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Artwork: How Astrobotic depicts the peregrine falcon on the surface of the moon

Engineers were able to diagnose what was wrong with Peregrine and then sustain life in the lander far beyond what initially seemed possible.

“Space exploration is a learning game, especially at this stage, and we shouldn't look at this as a failure, we should look at this as an amazing engineering success,” said Sian Cleaver, industrial director for Airbus's European Service Unit. BBC Today programme.

“At one point, it looked like this mission was doomed to failure, but a team of engineers and scientists were able to work together, solve problems, restore some of the spacecraft's capabilities and ultimately guide it back to Earth,” she said. “I think that's really impressive.”

“There's a lot we can take away from this, but ultimately space travel is difficult, and we see that here.”

The fault was traced to fuel leaking from a ruptured oxidizer tank. This was generating thrust, turning the rover and preventing it from keeping its solar panels constantly pointed at the sun, which is vital to maintaining the power supply.

The Astrobotic team used thrusters on Peregrine to restore stable orientation, but this of course consumed more of the rapidly depleting oxidizer.

However, the payloads on board were activated, proving their spaceworthiness, and some of them were able to collect data, such as the nature of the radiation environment between the Earth and the Moon.

The tool has been reported to perform well in pull tests. The technology should have the opportunity to fly again on later lunar missions.

Image source, Intuitive machines

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Intuitive Machines is the next American company to attempt a soft landing on the moon

Astrobotic is the first of three U.S. companies to send a lander to the moon this year under a new public-private partnership with NASA.

The agency is purchasing transportation services from the Pittsburgh company and two other businesses – Intuitive Machines and Firefly. Together, the trio has planned six missions to the moon's surface in 2024.

Astrobotic is supposed to make a second attempt in the latter half of the year when it attempts to land a NASA rover called Viper. Houston-based Intuitive Machines' first attempt will likely begin next month. The Nova-C spacecraft will be directed toward the moon's south pole.

Before that, the Japanese space agency will attempt to land safely near a subtropical volcanic crater called Shiule. The event is scheduled to take place at 15:20 GMT on Friday.

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