The first US-launched Moon lander in over 50 years might not make it

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched its new Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral on Monday at 2:18AM ET, carrying a US-made Moon lander with NASA science and research payloads onboard.

But the Peregrine lander, built by Pittsburgh-based private space tech startup Astrobotic, has suffered a malfunction in the propulsion system, causing the craft to lose fuel and critically endangering its mission. The mission would have marked a US return to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years.

The company posted the first signs of danger earlier today when, after stage separation from the Vulcan Centaur rocket, the lander failed to face its solar panels to the sun. The company said it improvised a maneuver to do so, but after a period of expected communication loss, Astrobotic reported that the malfunction had caused rapid propellant loss. The company says it’s looking at “alternative mission profiles” and “maximizing the science and data we can capture.”

The uncrewed Peregrine Mission One launch was the first of a series of missions to fly under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) scheme, an initiative that enables the agency to pay private companies to carry its scientific equipment into space. Astrobotic was paid $108 million — just a fraction of the $25.8 billion that NASA spent on the trailblazing Apollo program — to carry the five NASA payloads to the Moon which will be used to detect water ice and measure radiation levels. The water experiments in particular are important for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to eventually establish long-term human presence on the Moon.

The launch was also the inaugural flight of the Vulcan Centaur heavy-lift booster rocket built by the ULA (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). The launcher is set to replace the company’s older Altas V and Delta IV rocket designs. Assuming the Peregrine Mission One lander won’t make it, then the US’ last Moon-landing will still have been 1972’s Apollo 17 launch. Peregrine had also aimed to be the first private mission to have ever touched down on the Moon’s surface.

That gives another launch next month the chance to be the first. The Houston-based company Intuitive Machines is expected to use a SpaceX Falcon 9 to launch its uncrewed IM-1 mission from Cape Canaveral with the aim to land on February 22nd — a day before the the ULA mission would land, sparking something of a private space race.

Other payloads aboard the Peregrine lander include less scientific cargo, such as artwork, a physical Bitcoin token loaded with one BTC of the actual cryptocurrency, and a Japanese time capsule containing 185,872 messages from children around the world. It also holds the DNA and cremated human remains of several notable celebrities — including Star Trek legends Gene and Majel Roddenberry, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, and James Doohan — intended for space burial aboard Celestis’ personal flight capsules.

Update January 8th, 2024, 4:24PM ET: Updated to reflect post-launch issues of the Peregrine mission.

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