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Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander Aborts Moon Landing Due to ‘Critical’ Fuel Leak

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Astrobotic Technology, the company behind the Peregrine lunar lander, has announced the abandonment of its moon landing attempt due to a “critical” loss of propellant resulting from a fuel leak. The setback occurred less than 24 hours after the historic launch of Peregrine, marking the first lunar lander to take flight from the United States in fifty years.

Shortly after lifting off from Florida toward the moon on Monday morning, Astrobotic declared the mission in jeopardy. The Peregrine lunar lander faced difficulties placing itself in a sun-facing position, essential for charging its batteries. The issue was attributed to a potential propulsion problem, hindering the correct orientation of the spacecraft.

Although the battery issue was later resolved, Astrobotic struggled to rectify the apparent propulsion system anomaly plaguing the Peregrine lander. In a late Monday evening statement, the company revealed a fuel leak affecting the thrusters of the lander’s attitude control system, which aligns the spacecraft precisely while in space. The thrusters had already operated well beyond their expected service life cycles to prevent an uncontrollable tumble.

Astrobotics stated that the thrusters could only operate for a maximum of 40 more hours. The primary goal now is to bring Peregrine as close to lunar distance as possible before it loses the ability to maintain its sun-pointing position and subsequently loses power.

This unfortunate turn of events rules out the much-anticipated moon landing originally scheduled for February 23. Astrobotic had warned of a “failure within the propulsion system” earlier in the day, triggering a series of efforts to stabilize the situation and explore potential solutions.

The Peregrine lunar lander, named after the fastest bird in the world, appeared to have a successful initial leg of its journey, lifting off at 2:18 a.m. ET atop the inaugural Vulcan Centaur rocket developed by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture. The Vulcan Centaur rocket performed as expected, delivering Peregrine into a trans-lunar injection orbit, aligning it with the moon’s trajectory.

The first-ever flight of the Vulcan Centaur rocket marked a milestone for ULA, replacing its older lineup of rockets. Peregrine successfully communicated with NASA’s Deep Space Network and activated its various systems after reaching the trans-lunar injection orbit. However, the propulsion anomaly left the lander pointed away from the sun, impacting its ability to charge its battery.

Mission controllers executed an improvised maneuver to reorient the solar panels toward the sun, successfully charging the battery. Despite this achievement, the underlying propulsion issue persisted, crucial for a soft touchdown on the moon.

Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, developed Peregrine under a $108 million contract with NASA. The mission aimed to fulfill NASA’s vision of reducing the cost of lunar landings by engaging the private sector. The company expressed that this initial launch served as a test mission, emphasizing industry success rather than any specific mission.

While the failure poses challenges for Astrobotic, it also impacts NASA and other entities with payloads aboard the Peregrine lander. The loss of the lunar landing attempt means missing the opportunity to test a crucial landing maneuver, essential for future lunar exploration endeavors.

Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, acknowledged the setback as an opportunity for learning and growth. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton, anticipating the mission’s challenges, highlighted the potential impact on the company’s future missions and relationships.

The unsuccessful lunar landing attempt marks a significant setback, but as space exploration continues, lessons learned from setbacks like this will likely contribute to future successes in lunar and deep space missions.

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