April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Valentina Moya (13 January 2024)

One of the first space missions of the year was Peregrine One, launched on Monday, 8 January from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The purpose of this NASA-financed mission was to soft-land on the Moon and deliver equipment to conduct research that would help future crewed missions to it. However, problems began soon after lift-off and Astrobotic –the US private firm behind the lander– announced it would not be able to land on the Moon’s surface.

Trouble began about 7 hours after its launch. The spacecraft was unable to reorient its solar panels towards the sun to allow its batteries to charge properly. Ground-engineers managed to fix this difficulty, but more problems unleashed, including a fuel leak that made Astrobotic and NASA announce that the probe would no longer soft land on the moon.

Instead, Peregrine One’s mission was updated. Its new goal is to enable the research equipment on board to gather as much data as possible until the spacecraft loses its power.  

“Peregrine remains operational at about 238,000 miles from Earth, which means that we have reached lunar distance! Our original trajectory had us arriving at the Moon on day 15 post-launch. Our propellant estimates currently have us running out of fuel before this 15-day mark — however, our engineers are still optimistic about extending Peregrine’s life expectancy”, stated Astrobotic in its last update on 12 January.

Peregrine One’s scheduled landing on the Moon was on 23 February. Its mission was to soft-land on its surface and deliver NASA’s cargo, which consists of an array of research equipment to gather information about the Moon to enable future missions, including crewed landings, as with NASA’s Artemis Program.

The spacecraft not only contains NASA payload. It also carries instruments from other countries and institutions, such as scientific equipment from the Mexican and German space agencies, as well as from universities and institutions around the world, including the United Kingdom. Astrobotic announced that Colmena –one of the payloads aboard– became the first Mexican instrument to operate in cislunar space.

Strangely enough, Peregrine One also holds non-scientific cargo. DNA from former US presidents such as George Washington, John F Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, and ashes from Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry were also on board. According to The Guardian, it also carries a Japanese ‘dream capsule’ with thousands of messages from children around the world.

If Peregrine One had succeeded in its original mission, Astrobotic would have achieved the first lunar landing by a private firm. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), a new program that seeks to lever American companies to send science and technology payloads to the moon.

Past missions have mainly been carried out by countries’ space agencies, such as the United States, Russia, and India, which managed to successfully soft land Chandrayaan-3 on the Moon’s south pole in 2023, becoming the first spacecraft to do so.

NASA equipment on board Peregrine One was supposed to gather useful data for the next phases of its Artemis moon program, which recently announced Artemis II and III missions had been postponed. The latter is to be the first crewed mission to land on the moon, and it has been rescheduled to 2026.

Once again, the world has its eyes on the Moon. Engineers and companies around the world are arduously working to develop spacecraft that will not only deliver research equipment to its surface but also allow humans to land on it again after 5 decades.

Image: NASA/Isaac Watson