A mission to put the first commercial craft on the moon appears to be in jeopardy after the spacecraft suffered a “critical loss” of fuel in a major blow to the United States’s hopes of placing its first robot on the lunar surface in five decades.
Vulcan – a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket carrying the robotic lunar lander Peregrine, built by space robotics firm Astrobotic Technology – was launched on Monday at 2:18am (07:18 GMT) from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
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A few hours later, Astrobotic began reporting technical malfunctions, starting with an inability to orient Peregrine’s top-mounted solar panel towards the sun and keep its onboard battery topped up, owing to malfunction in its propulsion system.
Although engineers found a way to tilt the spacecraft in the right direction thanks to an “improvised manoeuvre”, the company then posted that the propulsion system failure appeared to be the cause of a “critical loss of propellant”.
“The team is working to try and stabilize this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” Astrobotic wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
“We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time,” it said.
Commercial space race
The mission is part of an accelerating space race among private companies, and if it is eventually able to reach the moon, it would be the first-ever lunar landing by a private company. It would also be the first US landing on the moon in more than half a century – since the final Apollo landing in 1972.
Peregrine was set to land on the moon on February 23. It is part of a mission to gather data about the lunar surface before planned future human missions.
The launch also marks the first trek to the moon’s surface as part of NASA’s Artemis lunar programme.
The launch was essential for ULA, which developed Vulcan to replace its Atlas V rocket and compete with the reusable Falcon 9 from Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the satellite launch market.
Astrobotic aims to be the first private business to successfully land on the moon. Only four countries have managed to do that: the US, the Soviet Union, China, and India.
Private companies with hopes of spurring a lunar marketplace have had harder times with Japan’s ispace and an Israeli company crash-landing on their first attempts.
However, the race among private space operators continues. US company Intuitive Machines also has spacecraft ready to fly, and it hopes to beat Astrobotic to the moon because it is to take a more direct path.
“First to launch. First to land is TBD,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said.