Setback for NASA as Private US lunar lander facing failure after ‘critical loss’ of fuel

In a big setback for US space agency NASA, a historic private mission to land on the Moon was facing near-certain failure Monday after the spacecraft suffered a “critical loss” of fuel, in a major blow to America’s hopes of placing its first robot on the lunar surface in five decades.

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

A few hours later, Astrobotic began reporting technical troubles, starting with an inability to orient Peregrine’s top-mounted solar panel towards the Sun and keep its onboard battery topped up, due to a malfunction in its propulsion system.

Though engineers “improvised” a way to tilt the spacecraft in the right direction and keep its power going, the company then posted on X that the same propulsion failure appeared to be the cause of a “critical loss of propellant.”

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“We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time,” Astrobotic said, an apparent admission that the Peregrine would not achieve a controlled touchdown on the Moon as planned.

They also released an image taken from a mounted camera that showed extensive damage to an outer layer of the spacecraft, calling it the first “visual clue” that reinforces their theory of a propulsion system anomaly, without elaborating on its nature.

Peregrine was supposed to reach the Moon, then maintain an orbit for several weeks before landing in a mid-latitude region called Sinus Viscositatis on February 23.

A soft landing on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor has thus far 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 over the past decade, while India was the most recent to achieve the feat last year.

– Pivot to private –

The United States is turning to the commercial sector to stimulate a broader lunar economy and ship its hardware at a fraction of the cost under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program — but Astrobotic’s apparent failure could lead to criticism of the new strategy.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson however doubled down, praising the success of ULA’s Vulcan rocket on its maiden voyage, which maintained the company’s 100 percent success rate in more than 150 launches.

“Spaceflight is a daring adventure, and @astrobotic is making progress for CLPS deliveries and Artemis. @NASA will continue to expand our reach in the cosmos with our commercial partners,” Nelson said on X.

NASA paid Astrobotic more than $100 million, while another contracted company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, is looking to launch in February and land near the Moon’s south pole.

The space agency hopes to use such missions to probe the lunar environment, paving the way for its Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade, in preparation for future missions to Mars.

– Failure happens –

Controlled touchdown on the Moon is challenging, with roughly half of all attempts failing.

In the absence of an atmosphere that would allow the use of parachutes, a spacecraft must navigate treacherous terrain using only its thrusters to slow descent.

Private missions by Israel and Japan, as well as a recent attempt by the Russian space agency, have all ended in failure — though Japan’s space agency is targeting mid-January for the touchdown of its SLIM lander launched last September.

In addition to the science instruments it carried for NASA, Peregrine contains more colorful cargo paid for by private customers, such as a physical Bitcoin as well as cremated remains and DNA, including those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, legendary sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, and a dog.

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

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