Doomed Lunar Lander Will Burn Up in Earth’s Atmosphere on Thursday

Astrobotic, the company in charge of the mission, says its Peregrine spacecraft will not reach the moon, and burning it will ensure the lander doesn’t end up as space debris

An image of the side of a spacecraft in space
A photo from a camera on one of Peregrine's payload decks shows some of the spacecraft's payloads, as well as a sliver of Earth in the upper right. Astrobotic

A commercial spacecraft once intended to land on the moon is heading back to Earth, and it will burn up as it re-enters the atmosphere on Thursday, according to a statement from Astrobotic, the company in charge of the mission.

Shortly after the launch of the Peregrine One lander on January 8, the mission team discovered it was leaking propellant. By the following afternoon, Astrobotic announced the spacecraft had “no chance” of achieving a soft landing on the moon.

Even though Peregrine will not fulfill its main mission, the team was able to power on some of its payloads and receive data while the spacecraft traveled roughly 240,000 miles from Earth, just beyond the distance to the moon.

To avoid leaving debris in space that could damage other objects, Astrobotic will maintain Peregrine One’s current trajectory, which has it on a path toward Earth, where it will burn up in the atmosphere.

“We do not believe Peregrine’s re-entry poses safety risks,” the company said in the statement.

Peregrine One aimed to be the first commercial spacecraft to land on the moon. It’s carrying a number of payloads, including scientific instruments from NASA for studying the moon’s atmosphere, surface, magnetic fields and radiation environment. The space agency paid more than $100 million to fly its equipment on Peregrine One, according to Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP).

The National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Mexican space agency sent tiny robots on the lander, and it also holds privately funded instruments, per Inverse’s Kiona Smith.

Peregrine is also carrying human remains and DNA sent on the mission by two private companies. Before launch, the Navajo Nation president called for a delay of the mission, since landing human remains on the lunar surface would be considered desecration of a space sacred to many Indigenous cultures, Arizona Public Radio reported.

diagram showing the lander reach the distance of the moon—but the moon is not there, it's elsewhere in its orbit—and the trajectory it will take to return to Earth and burn up
The Peregrine lander reached lunar distance on January 12, when the moon was elsewhere in its orbit, then continued on a trajectory back toward Earth. Astrobotic

When Peregrine One successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:18 a.m. Eastern time on January 8, the plan was for the spacecraft to land on the moon on February 23. But the first sign of trouble came shortly after launch, when the lander was unable to stably point its solar panels toward the sun, which caused its battery to reach low levels.

The mission team soon determined the problem came from a fuel leak in the propulsion system. They theorized a valve had failed to reseal, causing helium to rush into the oxidizer tank and rupture it. Still, it’s too soon to definitively point to the cause of the leak, NASA said in a blog post on Sunday.

Despite its critical issue, the mission was still able to get some work done. Some payloads were turned on, and Astrobotic reported on January 11 that its team had “received data from all nine payloads designed to communicate with the lander.”

NASA wrote on the same day that some of its payloads had powered on, and two instruments were measuring the radiation environment in space around the Earth and moon.

“Measurements and operations of the NASA-provided science instruments on board will provide valuable experience, technical knowledge and scientific data to future [Commercial Lunar Payload Services] lunar deliveries,” NASA administrator Joel Kearns said in the blog post.

The spacecraft did travel as far as the moon is from Earth, reaching this “lunar distance” on January 12. However, the moon wasn’t at that particular point in its orbit at that time.

Astrobotic says they could continue to operate the spacecraft for several more weeks, but if they did, the propellant issue would make it difficult to end the mission safely. Debris left behind in space can potentially damage other spacecraft or spacesuits.

Astrobotic will host a teleconference with NASA at 12 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday to give an update on Peregrine.

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