Astrobotic’s Doomed Moon Lander Will Return To Earth In a Blaze of Glory
Instead of landing on the Moon, Peregrine is set to burn up in Earth's atmosphere later this week.
Gene Roddenberry’s ashes are set to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere later this week, along with those of half the main cast of his original Star Trek series, as well as a lunar rover, a small flock of robots, and millions of dollars in scientific instruments, all of which were originally supposed to land on the Moon.
Astrobotic’s Peregrine One lander was originally scheduled to be in lunar orbit early next week, preparing for a landing on the Moon’s near side in late February. Instead, the spacecraft is now headed back to Earth, where it will disintegrate in Earth’s upper atmosphere – so at least it’s going out in a blaze of glory. Here’s everything you need to know about the doomed mission and what went wrong.
What Happens Now?
As of this morning, January 16, the Peregrine Mission One spacecraft is on its way back to Earth after a 238,000-mile flight out to cross the path of the Moon’s orbit. The ill-fated spacecraft is scheduled to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate dozens of miles above the ground. Astrobotic says both the company and NASA are tracking the spacecraft’s path, and its re-entry won’t pose any safety risk to anyone on the ground.
The return to Earth is based on recommendations from NASA, other U.S. government agencies, and other members of “the space community” to prevent Peregrine from turning to a potentially hazardous piece of space debris orbiting the Moon or Earth, says Astrobotic in a recent update on its website.
“Ultimately, we must balance our own desire to extend Peregrine's life, operate payloads, and learn more about the spacecraft, with the risk that our damaged spacecraft could cause a problem in cislunar space,” the company says.
What Went Wrong?
Shortly after the mission’s launch from Cape Canaveral on January 8, things began to go wrong. It looks like a valve between the spacecraft’s oxidizer tank and a tank of high-pressure helium got stuck in the open position, according to Astrobotic. Here’s what that actually means:
It actually takes several ingredients to fuel a spacecraft. The stuff that actually burns, producing hot gas that gets pushed out the back end of the spaceship to create thrust, is called the propellant, and it’s usually something like liquid hydrogen, hydrazine, or even kerosene. But nothing burns without oxygen, so rocket engines need a second ingredient, called the oxidizer, to mix with the propellant so it can actually ignite.
Most of the time, the propellant and the oxidizer are stored in separate tanks, so they only combine when and where engineers want them to (most variations on that are catastrophically bad). Some spaceships – like Peregrine One – use pressurized helium to push the oxidizer and the propellant into the combustion chamber. Helium is a good choice because it won’t react with the oxidizer or the propellant.
But when the valve that’s supposed to push a small amount of helium into the oxidizer tank gets stuck, you end up with way too much helium in the tank – and like an overinflated balloon, the tank pops. Oxidizer goes everywhere except where the spaceship actually needs it to go, and suddenly, there’s not enough oxidizer to mix with the propellant to steer the spaceship to a safe landing on the Moon.
“While this is a working theory, a full analysis report will be produced by a formal review board made up of industry experts after the mission is complete,” says Astrobotic. “All available data is being downloaded from the lander to support this assessment.”
By January 14, the leak had started slowing down, and by January 15, Astrobotic reported, “The propellant leak caused by the anomaly has practically stopped.”
But by then, it was too late.
“Due to the anomaly, the fuel to oxidizer ratio is well outside of the normal operating range of the main engines, making long controlled burns impossible,” the company wrote in an update on its website.
Moon Landings are Hard
If it had succeeded, Peregrine would have been the first U.S.-based lander to reach the Moon since Apollo 17 visited in 1972, and the first private mission ever to pull it off.
The most recent successful Moon landing was India’s Chandrayaan-3, which touched down near the lunar south pole in August 2023. Just a few days earlier, Russia’s Luna-25 lander “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the surface of the Moon” in the same region. Like the Peregrine lander for the U.S., Luna-25 would have been Russia’s first Moon landing in more than 50 years (or technically ever: the last Russian spacecraft to land on the Moon was actually built by the Soviet Union, not the modern Russian Federation).
India is now the fourth country ever to make a “soft landing” — as opposed to a crash, either accidental or on purpose — on the Moon, following the Soviet Union (but not post-Soviet Russia), the United States, and China. But nobody’s track record for Moon landings is perfect; India lost its Chandrayaan-2 lander in 2019 thanks to a software glitch.
An Israeli spacecraft also crashed on the Moon in 2019, spilling a payload of tardigrades and DNA onto the lunar surface. Oops.
What’s Being Lost?
Peregrine Mission One was originally meant to orbit the Moon for several weeks before landing on February 23. Its controversial payload of human remains and DNA made headlines, but the spacecraft is also carrying a payload of several instruments for NASA, a quintet of tiny robots for the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Mexican space agency (AEM), a lunar rover from Carnegie Mellon University, and several other privately-funded instruments and experiments.
Several of those instruments managed to switch on and collect some data during the flight to lunar distance (meaning the distance at which the Moon orbits Earth, as opposed to “lunar orbit,” which would mean orbit around the Moon). Two NASA instruments successfully measured cosmic rays from deeper in our galaxy and space weather driven by our Sun’s activity.
“This data helps characterize the interplanetary radiation environment for humans and electronics,” says NASA in a statement.”
And although the five tiny robots from UNAM and AEM, called Colmena, didn’t get to trundle adorably around the lunar surface, they did get to power up and collect some data during the flight — making them the first Mexican instrument to operate in cislunar space.
Meanwhile, the doomed lander also carries the cremated remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (mingled with those of his wife and son), Star Trek actors Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley, and James Doohan, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, and others, along with DNA samples from several former U.S. presidents. Some of the ashes — a payload from “memorial spaceflight” company Celestis — were intended for interment on the lunar surface, while others were planned to carry on into deep space, but they will now return to Earth and burn up on re-entry later this week.
For Roddenberry, at least, Peregrine wasn’t his only memorial spaceflight. Other portions of the late screenwriter’s ashes traveled into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1992 among the personal possessions of astronaut Jim Wetherbee, and aboard a Celestis orbital mission, which burned up during re-entry in 2002 (on purpose that time). Counting the Peregrine mission, Roddenberry’s remains have flown to space more times than many living astronauts.
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