First Commercial Lunar Lander Mission in Peril

This photo shows shows Multi-Layer Insulation in the foreground.
This photo shows shows Multi-Layer Insulation in the foreground. The disturbance of the MLI is the first visual clue of a propulsion system anomaly. | Image by Astrobotic/Instagram

The first commercial lunar lander successfully launched early Monday morning from Florida, but soon thereafter, operators became aware of an “anomaly” that could threaten the completion of the mission.

Astrobotic Technology announced that its Peregrine Mission One lunar lander had successfully launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on January 8 at 2:18 a.m. ET.

If the mission reaches completion, it will deliver the first U.S. lander on the Moon since the Apollo program more than 50 years ago.

“Today Peregrine Mission One achieved a number of big milestones,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, in a press release shortly after the launch. “Peregrine powered on, acquired a signal with Earth, and is now moving through space on its way to the Moon.”

However, in a mission update provided later that morning, Astrobiotic officials said that an “anomaly” had occurred that was preventing the vehicle from achieving a stable sun-pointing orientation.

A second update said that the mission team believed that a “propulsion anomaly” was the cause of the unstable sun-pointing issue and noted that the spacecraft battery was reaching “operationally low levels.”

“Just before entering a known period of communication outage, the team developed and executed an improvised maneuver to reorient the solar panels toward the Sun,” the Astrobiotic team reported.

In a third update, the team reported that the improvised maneuver was successful, and the solar battery was now being charged. After assessing the incoming data, the team determined that the root cause of the anomaly was a failure of the propulsion system.

In a fourth update, Astrobiotic said the failure of the propulsion system had caused a critical loss of propellant.

“The team is working to try and stabilize this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture. We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time,” the company noted.

The last update of the day included a picture sent from space that appeared to show damage to the propulsion system.

“Nonetheless, the spacecraft’s battery is now fully charged, and we are using Peregrine’s existing power to perform as many payload and spacecraft operations as possible,” the team reported.

The lander is carrying a total of 20 payloads from seven nations and 16 commercial customers around the world, including mementos and messages from over 100,000 people, the first lunar surface payloads from Mexico and Germany, and the first lunar payloads from Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Seychelles.

The goal of Peregrine Mission One was to deliver “scientific instruments and payloads to the Moon’s Gruithuisen Domes region. The NASA instruments aboard Peregrine will help NASA prepare for the Artemis program’s missions to enable a sustained human presence on the Moon,” according to the original press release. The moon landing date was planned for February 23.

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