Astrobotic bid farewell to its Peregrine lunar lander on Thursday as the spacecraft plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, thereby preventing the failed mission from colliding into other spacecraft.
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The Pittsburgh-based company lost contact with Peregrine at around 3:50 p.m. ET, with the spacecraft potentially performing a control reentry over the South Pacific at 4:04 p.m. ET. Astrobotic is still waiting on confirmation from government agencies that its lunar lander completely burnt up upon reentry, and that no pieces of the spacecraft crashed on Earth.
Peregrine launched on January 8 on board United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, with plans to land on the Moon in late February. However, the spacecraft experienced a propulsion anomaly early on that destroyed Astrobotic’s hopes of becoming the first private company to land on the surface of the Moon.
“I’ll always remember the moment at Mission Control at ULA, when we were coming from the highest high of a perfect launch, and came down to a lowest low when we found out that the spacecraft no longer had…the propulsion needed to attempt a Moon landing,” CEO of Astrobotic John Thornton said during a press conference held on Friday. “That was certainly a tough moment for all of us.”
Despite its propellant leak, Peregrine persevered through the depths of space for more than 10 days, and its on board payloads even managed to power on. The lunar lander was stable and operational, but there was zero chance of it being able to pull off a soft landing on the Moon. With that in mind, Astrobotic was faced with the difficult decision on what to do with the spacecraft.
On January 13, the company had to decide whether to use Peregrine’s propulsion system to avoid Earth and go back out to the Moon or hold steady and have the spacecraft maintain its trajectory and intersect with Earth.
“We were assessing all of our options, and trying to figure out what the next right path for the spacecraft would be,” Thornton said. “We made the difficult decision to do nothing and to not take the risk of firing those engines and to let the spacecraft fall back toward Earth.”
The team behind the mission was concerned that, if the spacecraft were to go back out to the Moon, it could cause a “catastrophic situation” by colliding with another object, according to Thornton.
Astrobotic’s lander is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which is meant to help the space agency in its quest to return humans to the Moon and make it a sustainable place for long-term human presence. It was also meant to usher in a new era for private companies by granting them greater access to the lunar surface.
The 2,829-pound (1,283-kilogram) spacecraft was carrying 24 different payloads from three national space agencies, with 11 payloads from NASA alone, as well as a host of other payloads from private companies. Two of NASA’s payloads, NSS (Neutron Spectrometer System), LETS (Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer), made measurements of the radiation environment in the space between Earth and the Moon.
“All the NASA science payloads that could operate by being powered on did receive power and effectively gathered data during the time Peregrine was in flight,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for Exploration, Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said during the press conference. “The NASA payload teams adjusted their operations and were able to demonstrate that they could have operated if those instruments had reached the Moon.”
Astrobotic is preparing for its second attempt at a lunar touchdown with its Griffin mission, scheduled for launch by the end of the year. “I’m very much looking forward to that and I can just say that I am more confident than ever now that our next mission will be successful and land on the surface of the Moon,” Thornton said.
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