A spacecraft that was headed to the surface of the moon has ended up back at Earth instead, burning up in the planet’s atmosphere on Thursday afternoon.
Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh announced in a post on the social network X that it lost communication with its Peregrine moon lander at 3:50 p.m. Eastern time, which served as an indication that it entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific at around 4:04 p.m. .
“We await independent confirmation from government entities,” the company said.
It was an intentional, if disappointing, end to a trip that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the craft traveling past the orbit of the moon before swinging back toward Earth. But the spacecraft never got close to its landing destination on the near side of the moon.
The main payloads on the spacecraft were from NASA, part of an effort to put experiments on the moon at a lower cost by using commercial companies. Astrobotic’s launch was the first in the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments.
Peregrine launched flawlessly on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the debut flight of a brand-new rocket known as Vulcan. But soon after it separated from the rocket’s second stage, its propulsion system suffered a major malfunction, and the spacecraft could not keep its solar panels pointed at the sun.
Astrobotic’s engineers were able to get Peregrine reoriented so that its battery could recharge. But the leaking of propellant made the planned moon landing impossible. The company’s current hypothesis is that a valve failed to close, causing a high-pressure flow of 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 slowed, the spacecraft continued to operate. All 10 of the powered payloads, including four from NASA, were successfully turned on, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s power systems worked. (The fifth NASA payload, a laser reflector, did not need power.) Other customer payloads, including a small rover built by students at Carnegie Mellon University and experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies, were also powered on.
Over the weekend, the company said that the spacecraft, nudged off course by the propellant leak, was on a path to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The company said it had decided to leave Peregrine on that trajectory to prevent the possibility of the crippled spacecraft colliding with satellites around Earth.
More landers are aiming for the moon.
On Friday, a robotic Japanese spacecraft currently orbiting the moon, SLIM, will attempt a lunar landing. Touchdown will be at about 10:20 a.m. Eastern time. (It will be early Saturday morning, 12:20 a.m., in Japan.)
The next NASA-financed commercial mission, by Intuitive Machines of Houston, could launch as soon as mid-February.