Update: Astrobotic’s Lunar Lander With NASA Payloads Will Miss Landing

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After its highly anticipated launch before the crack of dawn today, Astrobotic’s maiden lunar lander flight has developed some problems. According to an update shared by the firm, while the lander was able to successfully clear some tests post deployment, as of now, it has been unable to maintain a normal solar orientation. The anomaly takes place early in the Peregrine’s journey to the Moon since it has to orbit the Earth before it can land on the lunar surface. Astrobotic’s update shares that the spacecraft could not achieve “a stable sun-pointing orientation.

Solar Orientation Is An Essential Component Of Peregrine Lander’s Journey To The Moon

During a typical lander’s journey to the Moon, it has to ensure adequate power on board to power up the various systems and subsystems necessary for guidance, payload maintenance and other systems. Subsequently, landers typically align themselves to the Sun as they start their journey, and this was also the case on the first U.S. attempt at a private lunar landing.

However, early in the morning today, Astrobitc shared an update on X that its lander had failed to establish a successful solar orientation. In other words, the lander’s solar panels failed to point toward the Sun after its propulsion systems successfully fired up. This leaves the future of the mission in doubt, including the fate of five NASA experiments and more than a dozen others that are on board the vehicle.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander has different designs based on its mission profile. Polar missions have side mounted solar panels, while other missions have a top mounted solar panel to generate power while in lunar orbit.

The Peregrine lunar lander in all its glory as visible in April 2022. Image: Astrobotic

Over an hour after its initial update, Astrobotic shared more details about the anomaly. The firm explained that while initially, the lunar lander’s panels had failed to point to the Sun, it had conducted emergency maneuvers to place them in the correct orientation.

However, the remainder of the statement spells doom for the first notable rocket launch of 2023 – especially for NASA’s Artemis program. Astrobotic explained that its initial assessment of the situation reveals that the problem that led to the incorrect lunar lander solar orientation is related to the propulsion system.

This system is responsible for landing the lander on the Moon. Therefore, Astrobotic warned that if this problem is indeed responsible for the mission anomaly, then it is unlikely that Peregrine will be able to successfully finish its mission and land on the Moon. Should this occur, then Pergerine’s journey will be quite short lived compared to, say, ispace’s Hakuto-R Mission 1, which had successfully reached the Moon but failed to land on the Moon in one piece.

Astrobotic’s chief, John Thorton, was aware of the potential of failure ahead of today’s mission. Speaking at the pre launch media teleconference, Mr. Thorton outlined that Peregrine is just one mission going to the Moon under NASA’s CLPS program. He added that there’s a “train of next launches,” including another launch by Astrobotic later this year.

Following a failure, Astrobotic will, like other space companies, pour over the data from the anomaly. However, analyzing this data will take time and should impact its future launch timelines with NASA. The next Astrobotic lunar lander, Griffin, will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. The next CLPS launch is another lunar lander, this time developed by Intuitive Machines. The Intuitive Machines NOVA-C lander will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, and at the time of publishing, Astrobotic is waiting for communications to resume with Peregrine after an expected blackout.

Update at 14:47 ET, January 8, 2024: Astrobotic has shared additional updates about the lander. After the expected blackout, the firm established communications with the spacecraft and confirmed that the solar array reorientation led to the batteries successfully charging. However, the propulsion system failure responsible for the anomaly is making the spacecraft leak fuel, explained Astrobotic. As a result, the Peregrine is unlikely to land on the Moon and it could meet its end sooner than the expected launch date.

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