11 July 2024

A historic commercial US mission to the Moon will fail after suffering a critical loss of fuel, organizers admitted Tuesday, ending for the time being America’s hopes of placing its first spacecraft on the lunar surface since the Apollo era.

Fixed to the top of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket, Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander blasted off Monday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, then successfully separated from its launch vehicle.

But a few hours later, Astrobotic began reporting malfunctions, starting with an inability to orient Peregrine’s solar panel towards the Sun and keep its battery topped up, owing to a propulsion glitch that also damaged the spacecraft’s exterior.

The company said it had “no chance of soft landing” on the Moon.

Peregrine has about 40 hours of fuel remaining and Astrobotic said it planned to operate the spacecraft until it ran out of propellant.

NASA had paid the company more than $100 million to ship scientific hardware to a mid-latitude region of the Moon to answer questions about the surface composition and radiation in the surrounding environment, as it prepares to send astronauts back to Earth’s nearest neighbor later this decade.

The United States is turning to the commercial sector to stimulate a broader lunar economy and cut costs, but Astrobotic’s failure could increase scrutiny about the strategy.

Astrobotic however said it was continuing to receive valuable data to prepare for its next contracted mission, sending the Griffin lander transporting a NASA rover to the lunar south pole, later this year.

– Latest commercial failure –

It is the latest private company to have tried and failed to achieve a soft lunar landing.

Israel’s Beresheet lander, the first attempt by a non-government entity, was destroyed on impact with the Moon in April 2019, while Japan’s private Hakuto mission, operated by iSpace, crashed in April 2023.

For now, the feat has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies: the Soviet Union was first, in 1966, followed by the United States, which is still the only country to put people on the Moon.

China has successfully landed three times since 2013, while India was the most recent to achieve the feat on its second attempt, last year.

The next commercial attempt will be by Houston-based Intuitive Machines, which is launching in February, bound for the Moon’s south pole.

In addition to its scientific instruments, Peregrine is carrying more colorful cargo on behalf of its own private clients. These include a physical Bitcoin and cremated remains and DNA, including those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, legendary sci-fi author and scientist Arthur C. Clarke and a dog.

The Navajo Nation, America’s largest Indigenous tribe, had objected to sending human remains, calling it a desecration of a sacred space. Though they were granted a last-ditch meeting with White House and NASA officials, but their misgivings failed to change matters.

by Agence France-Presse