Third Lunar Mission Setback Raises Questions About Moon Landings
In a recent setback for lunar exploration, Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander has been brought back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere following a fuel leak that disrupted its mission to the moon. The US company decided to terminate the mission and safely guide the spacecraft to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after attempts to rectify the issues proved futile.
What Went Wrong?
Just seven hours post-launch on January 8th, engineers noticed a misalignment in Peregrine’s orientation, hindering its solar panels from charging the necessary batteries. A fuel leak was soon identified, originating from a ruptured oxidizer tank, possibly due to a stuck valve. The leak caused a change in the probe’s orientation, depleting its fuel reserves, rendering it incapable of reaching the moon or executing landing maneuvers.
Mission Activities in Space
During its time in space, Peregrine’s engineers corrected its orientation, enabling solar panels to charge batteries. This allowed for brief tests of the main engine and activation of its on-board rover. Scientific instruments were remotely operated to measure radiation in interplanetary space, providing valuable insights. The spacecraft’s extended presence also gave Astrobotic time to decide whether to alter its course or continue towards Earth.
Why Bring It Back?
While Peregrine could have remained in Earth’s orbit for some time, the risks associated with uncontrollable space debris prompted its return. The spacecraft was directed towards the Pacific Ocean to minimize risks, as leaving it in orbit could pose threats to active satellites.
Safety Measures for Earth’s Re-Entry
Contrary to potential dangers, steering Peregrine back to Earth was deemed safer. The controlled re-entry, a common practice for satellite disposal, resulted in the spacecraft burning up in the atmosphere. It was carefully aimed to descend over the Pacific Ocean, east of Australia, reducing the possibility of surviving fragments reaching populated areas.
Controversial Payloads and Uncertainties
Peregrine carried two Celestis payloads containing cremated human remains, including those of Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek actors. The fate of these capsules following Earth’s re-entry remains uncertain.
Challenges in Lunar Missions
This marks the third lunar mission failure in the past year, raising questions about the increasing number of attempts to land on the moon. The surge in lunar landings employs new and untested equipment and protocols, resulting in expected growing pains. Despite setbacks, Astrobotic executives express their intentions to pursue future lunar missions.