A spacecraft headed for the moon’s surface ended up back on Earth, burning up in the planet’s atmosphere Thursday afternoon.
Pittsburgh astrobotics technology announced in a post on social network which lost communication with its Peregrine lunar lander at 3:50 p.m. Eastern Time, which served as an indication that it entered Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific around 4:04 p.m.
“We await independent confirmation from government entities,” the company said.
It was an intentional, if disappointing, end to a journey that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the ship traveling beyond the moon’s orbit before returning to Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to its landing destination on the near side of the Moon.
The spacecraft’s main payloads were from NASA, part of an effort to conduct experiments on the Moon at a lower cost by using commercial companies. Astrobotic’s launch was the first for the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments.
Peregrine launched safely Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the debut flight of a new rocket known as Vulcan. But shortly after separating from the rocket’s second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction and the spacecraft was unable to keep its solar panels pointed at the sun.
Astrobotic engineers managed to reorient Peregrine so its battery could be recharged. But the propellant leak made the planned moon landing impossible. The company’s current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing a flow of high-pressure helium to rupture a propellant tank.
Astrobotic initially estimated that Peregrine would run out of propellant and die within a couple of days. But as the leak subsided, the spacecraft continued to operate. All 10 powered payloads, including four from NASA, successfully ignited, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s power systems worked. (NASA’s fifth payload, a laser reflector, did not need power.) Other customer payloads also powered up, including a small rover built by students at Carnegie Mellon University and experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies.
Over the weekend, the company said the spacecraft, blown off course by a propellant leak, was on track to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The company said it had decided to leave Peregrine on that trajectory to avoid the possibility of the crippled spacecraft colliding with satellites around Earth.
More landers are aiming for the moon.
On Friday, a Japanese robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, SLIM, will attempt a lunar landing. Landing will be around 10:20 am Eastern Time. (It will be early Saturday morning, at 0:20 am, in Japan.)
The next NASA-funded commercial mission, carried out by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could launch in mid-February.