American Moon Mission Suffers Fuel Leak, Has ‘No Chance’ of a Soft Landing

Launched early Monday, the Peregrine spacecraft started losing propellant almost immediately, and the mission, which is carrying NASA scientific instruments, has been derailed

a rocket launching in the dark
The United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 8, carrying Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

The Peregrine spacecraft, which is carrying NASA scientific instruments, suffered a “critical” fuel loss en route to the moon after its launch on Monday. Now, engineers are trying to extract any science they can from this mission, but they have abandoned hopes of a lunar landing.

“Given the propellant leak, there is, unfortunately, no chance of a soft landing on the moon,” Astrobotic, the aerospace firm that spearheaded Peregrine’s development, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The team has updated its estimates, and we currently expect to run out of propellant in about 40 hours from now.”

The lander launched on January 8 at 2:18 a.m. Eastern time and successfully separated from the Vulcan Centaur rocket that carried it, developed by United Launch Alliance. Almost immediately, however, Peregrine ran into problems.

Soon after separation, engineers struggled to orient the lander’s solar panels toward the sun, which they realized was related to a propellant leak, reports BBC News’ Jonathan Amos. The Peregrine lander sent an image back to Earth, showing damage to the exterior of the spacecraft—a “visual clue” to the problems with its propulsion, Astrobotic said.

Through improvised actions, mission engineers managed to tilt the lander’s solar panels toward the sun, charging its battery fully. But with propellant still leaking from the craft, it is due to run out of fuel in less than two days, making a landing impossible.

“Given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” Astrobotic said in a statement Monday.

Peregrine Mission One would have been the first American-controlled moon landing since December 1972. The scientific instruments launched on this mission by NASA were meant to help the agency prepare for sending humans to the lunar surface in its Artemis program (which, the agency announced Tuesday, will be delayed.)

Peregrine’s failure “raises questions about NASA’s strategy of relying on private companies” to transport payloads to the moon, writes the New York Times’ Kenneth Chang. But NASA hopes that partnering with commercial ventures will allow for lower costs and more innovation—and the agency has said it’s prepared for some of these missions to go wrong.

“What we have learned from our commercial partners is if we have a high enough cadence, we can relax some of the requirements that make it so costly and have a higher risk appetite,” NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy told BBC News in December. “And if they fail, the next one is going to learn and succeed.”

Irrespective of the lunar lander’s fate, the Vulcan rocket’s liftoff was the first successful mission launch under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, which is meant to help the agency send science instruments to the moon.

For this mission, NASA paid $108 million to Astrobotic to have five scientific instruments and a navigation sensor delivered to the moon, reports William Harwood for CBS News. But NASA was not the company’s only customer—Peregrine Mission One is additionally carrying 20 payloads from seven nations and 16 various commercial companies.

Before launch, some of these payloads drew controversy. Two companies that specialize in memorial spaceflights for loved ones—Celestis and Elysium Space—launched human remains, including those of science-fiction creators Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke. Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren called for the flight to be delayed due to the human remains on board, which he said was “tantamount to desecration” of the moon.

Now, the Peregrine lander will continue to use propellant until it runs out, at which point it will begin to tumble through space. Its solar panels will not be able to face the sun, so it will run out of power.

Despite the failure to complete the moon landing, NASA has expressed support for Astrobotic and maintained an optimistic outlook for future missions.

“Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA headquarters, said in a statement. “We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration and commercial development of the moon.”

Astrobotic will use lessons from Peregrine to inform its next lunar venture, Griffin Mission One, slated for late 2024. The mission will assist NASA in searching for water ice near the lunar south pole.

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