Private US Lunar Lander on the Verge of Failure Due to ‘Critical’ Fuel Loss

A private US lunar lander mission is facing failure after experiencing a “critical loss” of fuel. The mission, led by Astrobotic, aimed to place the first robot on the lunar surface in five decades. The Peregrine Lunar Lander was attached to United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and successfully separated from the launch vehicle.

However, a few hours later, technical troubles arose, starting with an inability to orient the spacecraft’s solar panel towards the Sun and keep its battery charged due to a propulsion system malfunction. Engineers improvised a solution to tilt the spacecraft in the right direction, but the same failure led to a critical loss of propellant. Astrobotic reported having approximately 40 hours of fuel remaining before the lander would enter an uncontrollable tumble. The company is considering options such as a crash landing or attempting to get the lander as close to lunar distance as possible before losing power.

Astrobotic released an image showing extensive damage to the spacecraft’s outer layer, which they attributed to the propulsion system anomaly. The mission’s goal was for the Peregrine lander to reach the Moon, orbit for several weeks, and then land in a mid-latitude region called Sinus Viscositatis on February 23. Achieving a soft landing on the Moon has only been accomplished by a few national space agencies, including the Soviet Union and the United States. China and India have also successfully landed on the Moon in recent years.

The United States has turned to the commercial sector, under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, to stimulate a broader lunar economy and reduce costs. Astrobotic’s apparent failure could lead to criticism of this strategy. However, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised the success of ULA’s Vulcan rocket and expressed confidence in Astrobotic’s progress for CLPS deliveries and the Artemis program.

NASA paid Astrobotic over $100 million for the mission, and another contracted company, Intuitive Machines, is planning a launch in February to land near the Moon’s south pole. NASA aims to use these missions to gather data about the lunar environment and prepare for future manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

Controlled touchdowns on the Moon are challenging, with approximately half of all attempts failing. The absence of an atmosphere makes it difficult to use parachutes, requiring spacecraft to rely solely on thrusters to slow descent. Previous private missions by Israel, Japan, and Russia have all ended in failure. Peregrine carried science instruments for NASA as well as cargo from private customers, including a physical Bitcoin, cremated remains, and DNA samples from notable individuals such as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke.