Space missions regularly test multiple new technologies in one go. It’s very common to have a single mission test out three or more new technologies, making them “flight-proven.” Unfortunately, that sometimes means that though one particular new technology, or even many of them, might succeed, one technology could work. At the same time, another one could fail, and that single failure might mean that several other technologies might never even get a chance for their day in the Sun. That seems to have happened with NASA’s first Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) mission. While the Vulcan rocket, developed by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), lifted off successfully, the Peregrine lander, developed by Astrobotic, seems to have run into an error that jeopardizes the rest of the mission.
This might just be a matter of experience – ULA has decades of it when launching rockets. While the Vulcan is its latest and greatest rocket, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the two giant aerospace manufacturers who are joint partners in ULA, are no strangers to successful rockets. While the Vulcan is more powerful than the Atlas V and the Delta IV heavy, the current workhorses of the ULA’s launch fleet, it follows the same basic logic of its predecessors rather than taking the sorts of risks that have made Space X’s reusable boosters the darling of space enthusiasts over the last ten years.
But if the technology works, then it works, and the launch on the morning of January 8 counts as the first success for the Vulcan. That success comes after multiple delays from when development was originally started in 2014. Initially slated for launch in 2020, problems with engine development and the “Centaur” upper stage delayed the initial planned launch by almost four years. But sometimes repeated delays are necessary to launch a good product, which appears to be true for the Vulcan.
Astrobotic has had much less experience with utilizing technologies in space. Despite being founded in 2007, the Peregrine lander that Vulcan lifted into orbit was the first time its technology had made it into space. This isn’t for want of trying. It has received millions of dollars from NASA as part of its Small Business Innovation Research, Institute for Advanced Concepts, and CLPS programs.
It also tried to launch a predecessor to Peregrine, then known as the Griffin, through a series of launch windows from 2013 to 2016, but the mission never got off the ground. Several other projects have been canceled during the company’s history. However, as part of this current CLPS mission, the Peregrine is carrying five different NASA experiments on board, ranging from a radiation detector to a sensor to look for water and other volatiles on the lunar surface.
Peregrine itself did make it off the ground and even into space. However, as of the time of writing, the company said it experienced an anomaly with a propulsion system that made it impossible to orientate toward the Sun correctly. There are two main problems stemming from this – first, the solar arrays on the lander aren’t able to get enough sunlight to maintain lander operations in their current orientation. Second, and perhaps more devastatingly, the propulsion problem itself could stop the lander from making a soft landing as planned on the lunar surface.
At the time of writing, the company was posting continual updates on X about the state of the lander. The latest update was that Astrobotic’s engineers had attempted to send a command to force the lander to reorientate toward the Sun, allowing it to receive enough solar radiation to keep operating for an extended period and thereby giving the engineers more time to figure out a solution to the propulsion problem. However, they were also entering a known communications blackout period, so it is currently unclear whether or not that orientation command successfully went through and whether the lander will be able to reestablish communications once it has passed through the blackout.
More updates are sure to come on the lander’s current state and also on what might have potentially happened to cause these problems. But one thing is certain – this will not be the end of CLPS, nor most likely of Astrobotic itself. Despite being a start-up spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, it is well-established enough in the space exploration industry for one failure such as this to not necessarily cause the company itself to fail. But, if it hopes to grow as robust as ULA at some point in the future, it will need to learn from its mistakes. Hopefully, when it does, that will result in a successful lunar lander mission for the US for the first time in decades.
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As part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander launched on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket at 2:18 a.m. EST from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
Credit – NASA