A historic private mission to land on the Moon was facing potential failure Monday due to technical problems, in a 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, Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lunar Lander blasted off overnight from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, then successfully separated from its launch vehicle around an hour later.
But teams at ground control found they were unable to point the unmanned spacecraft correctly at the sun, necessary for its top-mounted solar panel to achieve maximum power generation for Peregrine’s systems.
In its latest update, Astrobotic tweeted: “The team believes that the likely cause of the unstable sun-pointing is a propulsion anomaly that, if proven true, threatens the ability of the spacecraft to soft land on the Moon.”
The company added Peregrine is currently in an expected communication blackout, and it would provide further updates once contact is re-established.
Peregrine is supposed to reach the Moon, then maintain an orbit for several weeks before touching down on a mid-latitude region of the Moon called Sinus Viscositatis, or Bay of Stickiness, on February 23.
Until now, a soft landing on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor has 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 on its second attempt, last year.
Now, 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 a failure for Astrobotic could lead to criticism of the new strategy.
NASA paid Astrobotic more than $100 million for the task, while another contracted company, Houston-based Intuitive Machines, is looking to launch in February and land near the Moon’s south pole.
NASA says they will help pave the way for its Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade, in preparation for future missions to Mars.
Controlled touchdown on the Moon is a challenging undertaking, 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 failed — though the Japanese Space Agency is targeting mid-January for the touchdown of its SLIM lander launched last September.
This weekend’s blast-off was the first launch for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, maintaining the company’s 100 percent success rate in more than 150 launches.
Vulcan is planned to have reusable first-stage booster engines, which the company, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, expects will save costs.
On board Peregrine is a suite of scientific instruments that will probe radiation and surface composition, helping to pave the way for the return of astronauts.
But it also contains more colorful cargo, including a shoebox-sized rover built by Carnegie Mellon University, a physical Bitcoin, and cremated remains and DNA, including those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, legendary sci-fi author and scientist Arthur C. Clarke, and a dog.
The Navajo Nation, America’s largest Indigenous tribe, has objected to sending human remains, calling it a desecration of a sacred space. Though they were granted a last-ditch meeting with White House and NASA officials, their objections failed to remove the cargo.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
Astrobotic's Peregrine Lunar Lander,US Lunar Lander,US Moon Mission,United Launch Alliance's new Vulcan rocket