Despite a propulsion issue, a private Peregrine moon lander powers up lunar cargo

For Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, all may not be lost.

The lander experienced an anomaly shortly after taking off on Monday, January 8, during the inaugural flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. This was caused by a blocked valve in the propulsion system, which resulted in damage to the spacecraft and a large fuel leak. Given those problems, the firm declared on Tuesday, January 9, that a soft lunar landing would not be feasible.

However, Astrobotic sent its 12th mission update via X on Thursday, January 11, showing that there is some positive news despite the catastrophic propulsion system failure. Using communication antennae from NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), Peregrine was able to connect to ground teams and power up its payloads (the ones that needed electricity, anyway).

“As Peregrine emerges from a planned communications blackout with NASA’s DSN ground network, we’re pleased to announce the team’s efforts to gather payload data have been fruitful,” Astrobotic posted on X. “We have successfully received data from all 9 payloads designed to communicate with the lander. All 10 payloads requiring power have received it, while the remaining 10 payloads aboard the spacecraft are passive.”

Astrobotic’s update is largely positive, however it’s uncertain if any of those payloads will be able to finish the tasks for which they were intended. “These payloads have now been able to prove operational capability in space, and payload teams are analyzing the impact of this development now. We are proud of the mission team for achieving this incredible feat under such challenging circumstances.”

The update is accompanied by a Peregrine image that shows the wheels of the tiny Iris lunar rover, which was constructed by Carnegie Mellon University.

An inventory of the payloads that have obtained power is also included in the update: Astrobotic’s own Optical Precision Autonomous Landing sensor; five scientific instruments designed by NASA laboratories; the M-42 radiation detector built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR); the Iris rover; the COLMENA micro-robots built by the Laboratory of Special Instruments (LINX) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM); and Pocari Sweat’s Lunar Dream Time Capsule, a soft drink can containing handwritten messages from people around the world that were laser-etched onto titanium plates.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payloads Services (CLPS) initiative was launched with the Peregrine mission. Its goal is to expedite lunar science by hiring private landers to deliver payloads to the moon’s surface. NASA leadership is aware of the risks associated with these missions because many of these private spacecraft and landers are brand-new and have not been tested.

Joel Kearns, deputy assistant administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, stated via email that  “Each success and setback are opportunities to learn and grow,” “We will use this lesson to propel our efforts to advance science, exploration and commercial development of the moon.”

The next CLPS mission is scheduled for mid-February, when the Intuitive Machines-built Nova-C lander from Houston will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the intention of reaching the moon.

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