A spacecraft headed to the Moon’s surface instead returned to Earth, burning up in the planet’s atmosphere Thursday afternoon.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology announced a post on the social network which lost communication with its Peregrine lunar lander at 3:50 pm Eastern time, which served as an indication that it entered Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific around 4:04 pm
“We await independent confirmation from government bodies,” the company said.
It was an intentional, if disappointing, conclusion to a journey that lasted 10 days and covered more than half a million miles, with the spacecraft traveling beyond the moon’s orbit before returning to Earth. But the spacecraft never came close to landing on the Moon’s near side.
The main payloads on the spacecraft came from NASA, as part of an effort to perform experiments on the Moon at a lower cost using commercial companies. Astrobotic’s launch was the first of the program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS. NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to transport five experiments.
Peregrine launched safely on Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, during the debut flight of a brand-new rocket known as Vulcan. But soon after separating from the rocket’s second stage, its propulsion system suffered a serious malfunction and the spacecraft failed to keep its solar panels pointed at the sun.
Astrobotic engineers managed to reorient Peregrine so that its battery could recharge. But the loss 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 payloads, including four from NASA, were successfully powered up, demonstrating that the spacecraft’s power systems were working. (NASA’s fifth payload, a laser spotlight, needed no power.) Other customer payloads have also been powered up, including a small rover built by Carnegie Mellon University students and experiments for the German and Mexican space agencies .
Over the weekend, the company said the spacecraft, pushed off course by leaking propellant, was on track to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. The company said it decided to leave Peregrine on that trajectory to avoid the possibility of the damaged spacecraft colliding with satellites around Earth.
Other landers are aiming for the Moon.
On Friday, a Japanese robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon, SLIM, will attempt a Moon landing. The touchdown will occur at approximately 10:20 a.m. Eastern time. (It will be early Saturday morning, 00:20, in Japan.)
The next NASA-funded commercial mission, from Houston-based Intuitive Machines, could launch as early as mid-February.