Astrobotic's Peregrine Moon lander burns up in Earth's atmosphere
A spacecraft that was headed to the moon's surface burned up in the planet's atmosphere and returned to Earth on Thursday afternoon.
Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology Announced A post on the social network It lost contact with its Peregrine Moon lander at 3:50 p.m. Eastern Time, indicating that it entered Earth's atmosphere over the South Pacific at approximately 4:04 p.m.
“We await independent confirmation from government entities,” the company said.
It was a deliberate, if disappointing, end to a journey that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the spacecraft passing beyond the Moon's orbit before turning back toward Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to its landing destination on the Moon.
The main payloads on the spacecraft were from NASA, part of an effort to conduct experiments on the Moon at low cost using commercial companies. Astrobotic's launch was the first in the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments.
Peregrine launched flawlessly on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the maiden flight of a new rocket called Vulcan. But soon after separation from the rocket's second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction and the spacecraft could no longer point its solar panels toward the Sun.
Astrobotic's engineers were able to reorient Peregrine so that its batteries could recharge. But leaking propellant made the planned landing on the Moon impossible. The company's current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing the high-pressure flow of helium to rupture a propellant tank.
Astrobotic initially estimated that Peregrine would run out of propellant and die within a few days. But as the leak slowed, spacecraft operations continued. All 10 powered payloads, including four from NASA, were successfully powered up, showing that the spacecraft's power systems are working. (A fifth NASA payload, a laser reflector, did not require power.) Other customer payloads, including a small rover built by Carnegie Mellon University students and experiments from the German and Mexican space agencies, were also operational.
Over the weekend, the company said the spacecraft was on track to burn up in Earth's atmosphere after it veered off course due to a propellant leak. The company said it decided to leave Peregrine on that trajectory to prevent the possibility of the spacecraft hitting satellites around Earth.
More landers are aiming towards the Moon.
On Friday, SLIM, a robotic Japanese spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, will attempt a lunar landing. Touchdown will occur at approximately 10:20 a.m. Eastern Time. (This will be Saturday morning, 12:20 a.m. in Japan.)
The next NASA-funded commercial mission, by Houston's Intuitive Machines, could launch in mid-February.