Astrobotic prepares the next lunar lander after the failed Peregrine moon mission

By | March 20, 2024

Despite the failure of the first U.S. commercial lunar lander to ever operate in space, Astrobotic Technology is pressing ahead with its next lunar mission, which is still on the calendar for launch before the end of the year.

The build-out of hardware for the Astrobotic Griffin Mission One lander is now on display at the Pittsburgh-based private company and can be viewed from the adjacent Moonshot Museum. The upcoming lunar lander, known as Griffin, is the largest lunar lander since the Apollo lunar module.

There’s no doubt about it: Griffin’s upcoming flight is not only a major flight for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which contracts U.S. companies to bring science and technology to the lunar surface; it also signals an important bridge to NASA’s Artemis program for human exploration on the moon.

Related: As the crippled Peregrine lunar lander burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, Astrobotic is ‘excited for the next adventure’

Lunar machines

The Griffin spacecraft will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and will carry a unique Artemis moon rover, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER.

VIPER is scheduled to land near the moon’s south pole and orbit for a 100-day mission at Mons Mouton, a flat-topped mountain bordering the western rim of Nobile crater.

The robotic rover is seen by NASA as an important tool to gather critical information about the origin and distribution of water ice on the moon. By doing so, VIPER can help gauge the clarity of vision for harvesting lunar resources to support human exploration of Earth’s celestial neighbor.

a map of the moon's dusty gray surface

a map of the moon’s dusty gray surface

Rough, rocky road

But the path to the moon was a rough, rocky one for Astrobotic. The loss of the roughly $100 million Peregrine Mission One lunar lander mission was fraught with highs and lows, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said.

“These missions are very difficult to begin with,” Thornton told Space.com. “We do it for a fraction of what it normally costs to get these missions done. The challenge is to fly this on the budget that we’re trying to do here. And if we succeed, that means you fly again, again and again.”

The company’s Peregrine lunar lander ran into trouble shortly after its Jan. 8 launch when it was sent to the moon by the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Riding atop the first flight of that Vulcan booster was bittersweet, but they pulled it off, Thornton said. Within hours, however, Peregrine was in trouble.

Pitfalls of peregrine falcons

Shortly after launch, Peregrine suffered a propulsion problem, short-circuiting its multi-engine burn journey before achieving a four-legged soft landing in the Gruithuisen Domes region of the moon.

“It failed initially and then we got 10 days of operations. So we got a lot of data to determine specifically what happened. There’s still uncertainty as to what that failure was,” Thornton said, whether it was a material was a failure. , dirt particles in a valve, perhaps a design problem. “There are parts of it you can never know,” he said.

Flight control teams collected a lot of data and feedback on other spacecraft systems, especially those custom built by Astrobotic. “So fortunately we didn’t lose communication. That would have been a worst-case scenario if we had resolved the situation.”

Thornton said a failure review committee is now investigating Peregrine’s pitfalls, “to make spacecraft better in the future.”

In the final days of the trouble-plagued mission, the decision was made to direct Peregrine Mission One to make a destructive, controlled return to the waters of the South Pacific on January 18. Peregrine had a total of twenty cargoes on board from seven countries. 16 commercial customers.

Crumpled pieces of metal can be seen in the foreground;  a crescent of light can be seen in the backgroundCrumpled pieces of metal can be seen in the foreground;  a crescent of light can be seen in the background

Crumpled pieces of metal can be seen in the foreground; a crescent of light can be seen in the background

Serious progress

Related stories:

– ULA’s Vulcan rocket launches a private US lunar lander, the first since Apollo, and human remains during its first flight

— Who is Astrobotic Technology and what do they do?

— NASA’s ice-seeking VIPER moon rover prepares to glide toward the launch pad

Despite the loss of Peregrine, Thornton remains optimistic about the NASA CLPS model for doing lunar business.

“I think this is achievable and I believe we are at the precipice as an industry,” Thornton said. “We are making serious progress.”

What is Thornton’s view, given Intuitive Machines’ soft landing on the moon of its Odysseus spacecraft on February 22 in the moon’s south polar region?

“Of course it is a challenge to allow a competitor to come much closer to complete success than we do,” Thornton replied.

“From an industry perspective it’s a big one. It says the model will probably work if given a little more time,” Thornton added. “To me, that’s the biggest victory we can have. If the industry is successful, Astrobotic will ultimately be successful.”

Astrobotic offered a latest update for the Peregrine Mission One on the company’s website:

“Peregrine flew so Griffin could land. Ad luna per aspera”, the communiqué concludes with a nod to a Star Trek motto: “To the stars through difficulties.”

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