February 27, 2024

What is the Peregrine lander and what was its purpose?

The Peregrine lunar lander is a robotic spacecraft designed by US-based lunar logistics company, Astrobotic. Loaded onto a rocket and blasted into space, it is designed to deliver payloads to the surface of the moon, or the moon’s orbit.

Its first mission, Peregrine Mission One, launched on Monday, January 8 and was intended to deliver scientific equipment to the Gruithuisen Domes region of the moon. Some of these instruments are designed to take readings that could minimize risks and lay some of the groundwork for Nasa’s Artemis program, which hopes to enable a sustained human presence on the moon.

Also on the lander are instruments and equipment from the Mexican and German space agencies, as well as universities, companies and individuals in the UK and elsewhere. These include a physical coin “loaded with one bitcoin” and a Japanese “moon dream capsule” containing 185,872 messages from children around the world.

What went wrong?

Peregrine successfully lifted on a Vulcan Centaur rocket – a new type of methane-fueled rocket – from the Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida at 2:18 a.m. ET (7:18 a.m. GMT) on Monday. About 50 minutes after launch, and at an altitude of 500 km (311 miles) above the Earth, the lander separated from the rocket and continued its journey.

The first sign of trouble came about 7 hours after launch, when the spacecraft was unable to reorient its solar panels to face the sun, allowing its batteries to charge. The ground-based engineering team eventually succeeded in changing them, only for further problems to develop.

First, Astrobotic reported that it considered the root of the problem to be an internal failure the vehicle’s drive system. Then it said that this failure caused a critical loss of propellant. “Given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” the company said. Soon after, Astrobotic shared the first image of the Peregrine lander in space, which showed that its outer layers of insulation were wrinkled.

The company announced on Monday evening that the fuel leak was causing the thrusters of Peregrine’s attitude control system – designed to precisely align the lander – to “operate well beyond their expected life cycles to keep the lander from an uncontrollable tumble”. Based on current fuel consumption, it said, the thrusters would likely only continue to operate for a maximum of 40 hours.

What will happen to the spacecraft now?

Peregrine was scheduled to land on the moon on Feb. 23, and even if it gets there, the 1.2-meter-ton spacecraft will have to reorient its engine to fire in controlled bursts during its descent.

It looks increasingly unlikely to achieve this. In a statement posted on social media platform X at 9:16 p.m. ET on Monday, Astrobotic said, “At this time, the goal is to get Peregrine as close to lunar distance as we can before it loses the ability to to retain its sundial position and subsequently lose power.”

If the mission is abandoned, Peregrine will become another piece of debris floating in space. It will also be a floating chest, as its contents contain capsules DNA samples or portions of cremated remains of former US presidents, science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke and others whose families paid to have their remains landed on the moon.

Can anything be saved?

While propulsion and power system limitations could prevent a lunar landing, “the spacecraft’s robust scientific instruments and fully charged battery, combined with limited propulsion, open doors to valuable alternative goals”, said Dr Minkwan Kim at the University of Southampton. “With the exception of propulsion, all onboard systems can be rigorously tested against the harsh realities of space – extreme temperatures, intense radiation. This real-world environmental test will provide crucial insights into system resilience and readiness for future lunar missions.”

Moon bound Vulcan rocket successfully launches into space – video

What does this mean for future cooperative missions?

Peregrine Mission One could well become the third failed attempt by a private company to land on the moon, after the Beresheet lander and the Hakuto-R lander crashed on the lunar surface in 2019 and 2023, respectively. But many others are planned.

Nasa alone has several lunar missions involving private spacecraft scheduled between now and 2026, and has emphasizes that every mission is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. “Private-public collaborations unlock new avenues for innovation, often at a faster pace than traditional space agencies alone.

“While Peregrine’s moon landing may not have happened, it is crucial to avoid labeling it as a total failure,” Kim said. “Peregrine’s unique design and technology pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the development of lunar landers, and the collaborations developed could be instrumental in lowering costs, paving the way for more frequent and sustainable lunar missions.”

“Each challenge provides an opportunity to learn and refine our approach, making the next attempt even more likely to succeed.”

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