Jan. 19: This article was updated to include information from a news conference the day after it was first published.
A spacecraft that was headed to the surface of the moon has ended up back at Earth instead, burning up in the planet’s atmosphere on Thursday afternoon.
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh announced in a post on the social network X that it lost communication with its Peregrine moon lander at 3:50 p.m. Eastern time, which served as an indication that it entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific at around 4:04 p.m.
On Friday, the United States Space Command confirmed the destruction of Peregrine. Astrobotic will bring together a review board of space industry experts to figure out what went wrong.
It was an intentional, if disappointing, end to a trip that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the craft traveling past the orbit of the moon before swinging back toward Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to its landing destination on the near side of the moon.
The main payloads on the spacecraft were from NASA, part of an effort to put experiments on the moon at a lower cost by 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 that cost $9 million to build.
Peregrine launched flawlessly on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the debut flight of a brand-new rocket known as Vulcan. But soon after it separated from the rocket’s second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction, and the spacecraft could not keep its solar panels pointed at the sun.
Astrobotic’s engineers were able to get Peregrine reoriented so that its battery could recharge. But the leaking of propellant made the planned moon landing impossible. The company’s current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing a high-pressure flow of helium to rupture a propellant tank.
Astrobotic initially estimated that Peregrine would run out of propellant and die within a couple of days. But as the leak slowed, the spacecraft continued to operate. All 10 of the powered payloads, including four from NASA, were successfully turned on, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s power systems worked. (The fifth NASA payload, a laser reflector, did not need power.) Other customer payloads, including a small rover built by students at Carnegie Mellon University and experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies, were also powered on.
“After that anomaly, we just had victory after victory after victory, showing the spacecraft was working in space,” John Thornton, the chief executive of Astrobotic, said during the Friday news conference.
Over the weekend, the company said that the spacecraft, nudged off course by the propellant leak, was on a path to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The company said it had decided to leave Peregrine on that trajectory to prevent the possibility of the crippled spacecraft colliding with satellites around Earth.
More landers are aiming for the moon.
On Friday, a robotic Japanese spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, SLIM, achieved a lunar landing, although it was running out of power because of problems with its solar array.
The next NASA-financed commercial mission, by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could launch as soon as mid-February.
Astrobotic has a NASA contract to take a much bigger payload to the moon: the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER. VIPER is to drive around the moon’s south polar region including entering permanently shadowed craters that are some of the coldest places in the solar system. That mission is to gather key scientific reconnaissance before astronauts head there.
While the cost of the NASA experiments on Peregrine was $9 million, VIPER will cost more than $430 million to build and operate, and it is to ride aboard Astrobotic’s bigger lander, Griffin.
The VIPER mission is currently scheduled to launch in November, but that would mean NASA would have to fly a key, expensive vehicle on an unproven spacecraft from a company that has not successfully landed on the moon yet.
Joel Kearns, the deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s science directorate said during Friday’s news conference that he wanted to see the results of the investigation into what went wrong with Peregrine before deciding whether to make any changes in its contract with Astrobotic for the delivery of VIPER.
“We want to make sure we really understand the root cause and contributing factors of what happened on Peregrine,” Dr. Kearns said, “and if we have to modify our plans for Griffin.”