Failure of private Peregrine lunar lander will not stop NASA’s ambitious commercial lunar program

NEW ORLEANS – It was just two days ago when Peregrine, the inaugural private lander contracted under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Cargo Services program, launched brilliantly into space aboard the first private flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

Just a few hours into the trip, Peregrine began to fail.

Astrobotic, the company behind the spacecraft, continues to provide updates on how Peregrine appears to be going. post-anomaly; The struggling ship even provided a photograph for scientists to analyze as they decided what to do. Honestly, things aren’t looking great for the lander and Astobotic has confirmed this. will not make a soft landing on the lunar surface.

However, the morning after Peregrine’s fall began, the ultimate purpose of CLPS seemed to shine through during the astrophysicist’s mission. Jack burns‘ Sincerely optimistic presentation at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although, of course, disappointed when remembering the failure of the first official CLPS mission, Burns, a professor emeritus in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, makes sure to look forward at the same time. to what will soon be the second mission. The attempt is scheduled for February and Peregrine’s setback is not expected to change that.

“Yesterday we saw the first Astrobotic launch,” Burns said during the presentation. “Unfortunately, it has had some propulsion problems and is losing some fuel, so we’re not sure it will make it to the surface. But a second spacecraft will follow next month: a lander built by the company Intuitive. Machines.”

Related: The era of private lunar missions has begun

That lander, nicknamed Nova-C, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to carry six NASA payloads to the lunar surface, one of which Burns is involved with. Is called ROLLS, which stands for Electron Photographic Sleeve Radio Wave Observations on the Lunar Surface, and it’s absolutely fascinating. But beyond simply enthusing about the next CLPS attempt and detailing the bright promise of ROLSES, Burns emphasized that this second attempt will actually demonstrate the key point of NASA’s commercial effort. “It’s not a one-time deal,” he told

The only reason NASA started the CLPS program is because it wanted a cheaper, more efficient way to get easier-to-replicate scientific payloads into space. “If, God forbid, the James Webb Space Telescope were not deployed, we would really be stuck,” Burns said of the monumental 10 billion dollar observatory currently locked in position on the side of the Earth that never faces the sun. Meanwhile, CLPS offers a means to spread risks and costs across many landers and missions. “The idea behind the CLPS program is rapid acquisition and delivery of services,” he said.

If private companies can supply a rocket and lander for the agency, NASA scientists can essentially pay customers and conduct some experiments. Non-NASA scientists can do it too. And while Peregrine’s apparent failure has understandably raised questions about whether NASA’s CLPS concept is a bit undercooked, Burns further commented that Astrobiotic’s story doesn’t end with Peregrine, either. “You have another chance,” he said. “They have multiple shots and even another mission coming up in about a year.”

Still, he says, “we are friends with all the people who work at Peregrine and Astrobotic and that’s why we were there supporting them to be successful. So we are heartbroken.”

What is ROLSES?

In short, Burns says the far side of the Moon is the best place to do radio astronomy, or as he puts it, “it’s the only truly radio-quiet place in the inner solar system.”

As its name suggests, radio astronomy involves studying things that happen in space through radio frequencies emitted by the sources of those things. So naturally, you don’t want any non-source radio signals to interfere with the delicate signals you’re trying to focus on. And the Earth causes some radio interference of its own. But if a radio telescope were placed on the far side of the Moon (the area of ​​the lunar surface always hidden from our planet), any radio interference emanating from Earth would be blocked by the Moon’s thousands of kilometers of rock.

The moon also lacks a significant ionosphere, or atmospheric layer where many fast-moving particles hang and are at risk of radio interference. Earth’s ionosphere is full of these particles.

“The other part that may also not be appreciated,” Burns said, “is that the radio beams from these instruments are electromagnetically coupled to the subsurface conditions that occur on Earth and the Moon.” This is problematic on Earth because soil moisture, for example, can change what is known as the “dielectric constant,” or the ability of an insulating material to store electrical energy, from one day to the next. “That’s not true on the moon,” Burns said. “It’s stable and very dry.”

Unfortunately, radio astronomy on the Moon (particularly on the far side), he maintains, is a great idea. And he is not alone. Several scientists during the January 9 portion of the meeting brought blueprints of their ideas on how to begin building scientific observatories on our beloved celestial companion. Ethicists and policymakers are also considering how to manage that future.

Specifically, ROLSES will target a landing site near the Moon’s south polar region, in a small crater that is just 10 degrees from the actual south pole. “This will be the closest anyone has ever been to the South Pole,” Burns said. “The Indian Space Agency landed there with Chandrayaan-3 three about 30 degrees away, so we are creeping towards the south pole.

“It’s not a pristine, radio-quiet environment, but it’s a good place for us to start operations from the moon.”

As for the other side, the team says they will surely get there eventually. A mission called “LuSEE-Night” will someday travel to the pockmarked, neutral spot on the lunar surface (yes, it’s nothing like the grayscale watercolor side we can see from our planet). That day could come as soon as 2026 if all goes according to plan, when LuSee-Night is scheduled for launch aboard Firefly Aerospace’s upcoming “Blue Ghost” lander.

“The ‘at night’ comes from the fact that we are going to need 40 kilograms [88 lbs] of batteries. We will not only be able to survive, but also operate at night on the Moon.” This is quite interesting, since lunar and lander vehicles are known to die during the long, icy lunar nights. The components of India’s Chandrayaan-3, For example, it landed surprisingly close to the Moon’s south pole last year, but sadly did not wake up after the frigid stretch. Space enthusiasts everywhere were crushed, even though it was a pipe dream to believe they would survive.

The future of lunar radio astronomy

“The CLPS program is intended to be a high-risk, high-reward program. We already see some of the risk with Astrobotic,” Burns said. “With the ROLSES payload, the good thing about this is that we will land two or three of these payloads per year.”

To that end, NASA has already approved the flight of an improved version of ROLSES for 2026. For now, “we have a total of 2.5 meter monopole telescopes that we will be operating and we have two bands: a low band and a high band” . — and ranges from 10 kilohertz for plasma observations to 30 megahertz for astrophysical observations,” Burns said. Measuring at those frequencies from where the device will land would mark a first on that front. ROLLS We will also do things like study the density of the photoelectron sheath on the Moon, associated with photomissions of lunar regolith (practically lunar soil) that seem to accumulate. Hopefully, that will help scientists learn what astronauts heading to the lunar surface may experience in the outside environment.

One of the payloads accompanying ROLSES on Nova-C is also actually a pair of CubeSats that will be ejected during the lander’s descent, turn around, and take images of the lander heading toward the surface. “That’s going to be really cool,” Burns said. “That will give us a view of the lander descending to the surface for the first time.”


— The radio telescope will be launched to the far side of the Moon in 2025 to search for the cosmic Middle Ages.

– 10 exciting spaceflight missions to watch in 2024

— What is Intuitive Machines and how is it aiming for the moon?

At the beginning of the presentation (ironically, when my phone started ringing with Peregrine crash updates), Burns showed a video of the iconic Arthur C. Clarke during his presentation. It was an excerpt from an interview in which Clarke discusses, believe it or not, radio astronomy on the Moon.

“Especially on the far side of the Moon, protected from the Earth’s electronic noise by 2,000 miles of rock, there is an ideal location for radio astronomy telescopes,” Clarke says in the black-and-white images, “and I think Inside Within a few generations, almost all serious astronomy will be done on the Moon or in space.

“It’s been a few generations,” Burns said immediately after the clip ended.

“They were there.”

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