The first American lunar lander to launch in more than 50 years is headed for a terrible end. This is what was done in space.

The Peregrine spacecraft, which launched last week on the first U.S. mission targeting a moon landing in more than 50 years, is headed back to Earth and expected to make a fiery reentry after a critical fuel leak. thwarted his lunar ambitions.

The failed lunar landing attempt is a setback for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which enlists private companies to help the space agency research the lunar surface with the goal of returning humans to the Moon by the end. of this decade.

Astrobotic Technology, the company that developed the Peregrine lander under a $108 million contract with NASA, revealed Sunday that it made the decision to dispose of the spacecraft by allowing it to disintegrate in mid-air as it descended toward Earth.

“While we believe the spacecraft may have operated for several more weeks and could have elevated the orbit to avoid touching Earth, we must take into account the anomalous state of the propulsion system and use the capability on board the vehicle to complete the mission. responsibly and safely,” according to an update posted on the Pittsburgh-based company’s website. “We do not believe Peregrine’s re-entry poses safety risks and the spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere “.

The impending demise of the Peregrine rover comes after the spacecraft faced challenges while en route to the Moon, including an “anomaly” that caused its solar-powered battery to point away from the Sun and the fuel leak that left to the ship without enough propellant to complete its journey. mission planned to soft land on the lunar surface.

It is still unclear what caused the leak.

Astrobotic and NASA are expected to provide more updates on the mission during a press conference at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday.

“It is a great honor to witness firsthand the heroic efforts of our mission control team overcoming enormous challenges to recover and operate the spacecraft,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said in a Sunday statement. “I look forward to sharing these and other remarkable stories after the mission concludes on January 18. “This mission has already taught us a lot and has given me great confidence that our next mission to the Moon will achieve a soft landing.”

Weighing removal options

Astrobotic had other options for disposing of the Peregrine lander.

The spaceship could have been abandoned to the cosmos, destined to spend eternity in the darkness of the expanse. But the company said it decided not to take that route considering the “risk that our damaged spacecraft could cause a problem.” The Peregrine lander would essentially become a piece of uncontrolled junk, capable of crashing into other objects in space, such as operational satellites.

The company may also have considered allowing the Peregrine rover to crash on the moon, as many spacecraft have done, intentionally or not, on lunar missions in previous years.

When it returns to Earth, the vehicle will be destroyed as it crashes into the planet’s thick atmosphere at high speeds. The company said its decision to bring back Peregrine came after receiving “input from the space community and the US government on the safest and most responsible course of action.”

Critical errors

If Peregrine had reached the moon, it could have become the first American spacecraft to land on the lunar surface since NASA’s Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

But the company acknowledged just hours after launching its spacecraft on Jan. 8 that a soft landing on the Moon would not be possible.

Astrobotic then changed course, aiming to operate the vehicle as a satellite while its tanks were emptied.

Peregrine’s fuel leak subsided in the days after its launch, leaving the spacecraft able to limp forward for thousands of miles.

For the vast majority of the mission, the Peregrine lander has been controlled solely by its attitude control thrusters, which are small engines mounted on the side of the lander and designed to maintain stability or perform precision movements.

At one point, the company said it was able to briefly fire up one of the spacecraft’s main engines, which are designed to deliver up to three bursts of power to push the Peregrine lander further toward the moon after reaching space.

But due to the fuel leak, a prolonged and controlled ignition of the main engines was impossible, Astrobotic said.

As of Monday, the company said the spacecraft was about 218,000 miles (351,000 kilometers) from Earth.

What Peregrine could and could not achieve

Astrobotic was able to power up some of the scientific instruments and other payloads aboard the lander.

Two of NASA’s five payloads — the Neutron Spectrometer System and the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer — were able to collect data on radiation levels in space, the space agency announced in a Jan. 11 news release. . While NASA hoped to take those measurements on the lunar surface, where it plans to return astronauts later this decade, space agency officials indicated the data was still valuable.

The Peregrine lander was also able to activate a new sensor, developed by NASA, that was designed to help the spacecraft land on the moon. Called Doppler Lidar Navigation, it uses lasers and the Doppler effect, which uses the frequency of waves to measure distance, to perform precision navigation.

“The measurements and operations of the onboard scientific instruments provided by NASA will provide valuable expertise, technical knowledge, and scientific data for future CLPS lunar deliveries,” said Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. , it’s a statement. .

But at least one of NASA’s scientific instruments, the Laser Retroreflector Array, failed to function. The LRA is a collection of eight prisms embedded in aluminum that can reflect lasers and transmit precise locations. NASA engineers designed the array to become a permanent feature on the Moon, helping other spacecraft orient their locations.

Likewise, a number of other payloads designed specifically to operate on the Moon remain trapped aboard the Peregrine lander. They include a rover developed at Carnegie Mellon University and five small robots from the Mexican Space Agency that were designed to be catapulted to the lunar surface.

The Peregrine spacecraft also carries various mementos, letters and even human remains that customers paid to fly on the mission.

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