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    Peregrine lander: US Moon mission on course for fiery destruction

    • By Jonathan Amos
    • Science correspondent

    Image caption,

    Peregrine looks towards a crescent Earth, at top-right

    The US company that was hoping to land on the Moon will bring its mission home to destruction in the coming hours.

    Astrobotic says its Peregrine spacecraft will be directed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.

    The lander suffered a major propellant leak shortly after launching from Florida on its Vulcan rocket last week.

    Although engineers were able to stabilise the situation, the loss of oxidiser meant a safe touch-down on the lunar surface could never be attempted.

    Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic has decided to dispose of the craft, rather than let it wander aimlessly through space, posing a collision hazard.

    “Astrobotic has positioned the Peregrine spacecraft for a safe, controlled re-entry to Earth over a remote area of the South Pacific. The team has been continuously monitoring our re-entry analysis with [the US space agency, Nasa],” the company said in its latest mission update.

    “We expect re-entry to occur at approximately 16:00 Thursday, January 18 EST (21:00 GMT).”

    Astrobotic’s goal had been to deliver five Nasa instruments to the Moon’s surface, to study the local environment ahead of the return of astronauts later this decade.

    Had the Peregrine craft been able to land successfully, it would have become the first American mission in half a century to do so, and the first ever private venture to achieve the feat.

    Only government agencies from the US, the Soviet Union, China and India have managed controlled lunar landings to date.

    But Astrobotic can console itself with what it did manage to accomplish from a difficult situation.

    Image caption,

    Artwork: How Astrobotic envisioned Peregrine on the lunar surface

    Engineers were able to diagnose what went wrong with Peregrine and then eke out life in the lander far beyond what seemed possible at the start.

    “Space exploration is a learning game, especially at this stage and we shouldn’t look at this as a failure, we should look at this as an incredible engineering success,” Sian Cleaver, Airbus’ Orion European Service Module industrial manager, told the BBC’s Today Programme.

    “At one point it was looking like this mission was doomed, but a team of engineers and scientists managed to work together and to problem solve and to restore some capabilities of the spacecraft and ultimately direct it back to earth,” she said. “I think that’s actually pretty impressive.”

    “There’s a lot that we can take away from this, but ultimately space travel is difficult and we’re seeing that here.”

    The fault was traced to leaking propellant from a ruptured oxidiser tank. This was generating a thrust, turning the craft and preventing it from keeping its solar panels constantly pointed at the Sun – vital to maintain a power supply.

    The Astrobotic team worked the thrusters on Peregrine to restore stable pointing, but this of course used up even more of the rapidly depleting oxidiser.

    Nonetheless, payloads onboard were activated, proving their space-worthiness, and some were even able to gather data, such as on the nature of the radiation environment between Earth and the Moon.

    The instrument was reported to be performing well in the check-out tests. The technology should have the opportunity to fly again on later lunar missions.

    Image source, Intuitive Machines

    Image caption,

    Intuitive Machines is the next US company to attempt a soft-landing on the Moon

    Astrobotic is the first of three US companies to send a lander to the Moon this year under a new private-public partnership with Nasa.

    The agency is buying transport services from the Pittsburgh firm and two other commercial ventures – Intuitive Machines and Firefly. Together, the trio had planned six missions to the lunar surface in 2024.

    Astrobotic should get a second go in the back half of the year when it tries to land a Nasa rover called Viper. Houston-based Intuitive Machines’ first attempt is likely to launch next month. Its Nova-C craft will be aimed at the lunar south pole.

    Before then, the Japanese space agency will try to put down safely close to a near-equatorial impact crater called Shioli. This event is scheduled for 15:20 GMT on Friday.



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