The US lunar lander mission, developed by private company Astrobotic Technology, encountered a significant setback as it suffered a critical loss of propellant during its journey to the moon. This lunar mission, intended to be the first by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972, faced challenges shortly after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.
According to statements from Astrobotic Technology, the setback was attributed to a “failure within the propulsion system.” The company reported that after separating from the booster, the lander faced issues likely caused by a propulsion failure, preventing it from achieving a stable sun-pointing orientation necessary to charge its onboard battery.
The spacecraft, named Peregrine, was designed to carry scientific experiments, messages from Earth, human remains, and even a piece of Mount Everest to the moon. Additionally, it was expected to make history by landing on the lunar surface on February 23.
However, shortly after liftoff, the mission encountered complications. The first visual evidence of the issue came from photographs of Peregrine from orbit, revealing a disturbance in the multi-layer insulation (MLI). This indicated a potential problem with the propulsion system.
Astrobotic Technology acknowledged the challenges but expressed determination in addressing them. The company mentioned that the spacecraft’s battery had been recharged after initially running low and experiencing a communication blackout. The team utilized an improvised maneuver to direct Peregrine’s solar array toward the sun, utilizing the existing power to perform payload and spacecraft operations.
NASA, the American space agency, responded to the situation by acknowledging the difficulty of space exploration, stating, “Space is hard.” They assured collaboration with Astrobotic to identify the root cause of the propulsion issue and evaluate its impact on the scientific investigations aboard the spacecraft.
In the latest update, Astrobotic Technology revealed that an ongoing propellant leak was causing the spacecraft’s Attitude Control System (ACS) thrusters to operate beyond their expected service life cycles. These thrusters are crucial for maintaining the spacecraft’s orientation in a stable sun-pointing position.
The company outlined the challenges and indicated that if the thrusters continued to operate, Peregrine could maintain its sun-pointing position for approximately 40 more hours. The goal is to get the spacecraft as close to lunar distance as possible before it loses the ability to maintain its orientation and subsequently loses power.
Despite the setbacks, Astrobotic Technology is actively working on solutions to address the propellant leak and ensure the spacecraft’s stability during its journey to the moon. The complexities of space exploration, highlighted by this incident, underscore the challenges associated with pushing the boundaries of scientific and technological frontiers.
The lunar mission had additional significance as it carried scientific instruments for five investigations, along with the remains of ‘Star Trek’ cast members and the DNA of former US presidents, including John F Kennedy. While setbacks are inherent in space exploration, the resilience and problem-solving capabilities of teams like Astrobotic are crucial for advancing humanity’s understanding of the cosmos. The mission’s progress will be closely monitored as efforts are made to overcome the current challenges and continue the exploration of the lunar surface.