Astrobotic lander burns up in Earth reentry after missing shot at the moon while Japan celebrates success – Daily News

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A commercial company’s moon lander that never made it to the moon ended its nearly 11-day life in space burning up on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday while Japan managed to become the fifth country to land on the moon with a probe that touched down less than a day later.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 8 as the primary payload for United Launch Alliance’s first-ever Vulcan Centaur mission. It was the first launch as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program that aims to provide commercial companies funds to build moonbound spacecraft on which NASA would get to become a customer for transport of its payloads.

“What a wild adventure we were just on — certainly not the outcome we were hoping for and certainly challenging right up front but man, got really exciting through the course of it and there’s a lot of story to tell,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton during a Friday press conference.

NASA paid Astrobotic $108 million to develop Peregrine with the task of landing five payloads worth about $9 million.

While Peregrine was successfully deployed and Astrobotic established communication with the lander, a helium propellant leak continually threatened complete control and power of the spacecraft thwarting its plans to attempt a lunar landing in February, although it did manage to power up all of its payloads and make course adjustments traveling out more than 238,000 miles from Earth.

“I’ll always remember the moment at mission control at ULA when we were coming from the highest high of a perfect launch and came down to a lowest low, when we found out that the spacecraft no longer had the helium and no longer had the propulsion needed to to attempt a moon landing,” Thornton said. “So that was certainly a tough moment for all of us.”

Teams found the leak had both changed the expected position and speed.

Instead of continuing on any sort of trajectory where it would eventually die in space or possibly be able to impact the moon or enter lunar orbit, after conferring with NASA and U.S. government agencies, Astrobotic opted to end the mission by bringing the spacecraft back toward Earth aiming for a reentry in the Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand near Fiji and Tonga, which was independently confirmed Thornton announced during the call.

Astrobotic had lost telemetry at 3:50 p.m. EST Thursday which would have set up reentry over the open water in the South Pacific at 4:04 p.m. EST.

The planned trajectory for the reentry of Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander. (Courtesy/Astrobotic)

Despite the propellant leak, the company had been able to keep the spacecraft stable while testing out what it could minus the actual goal of landing on the moon, including at one point powering up all of its engines.

“We felt it was necessary to do some maneuvers right at the very end of the mission to make sure that we could end up with a safe splashdown at the very conclusion of the mission,” Thornton said.

He said the next step is to form a review board with industry experts outside the company to nail down the reason for the propellant leak so it won’t happen on future missions. It has a second planned mission under CLPS to send a larger lunar lander called Griffin launching on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket before the end of the year. That timeline could be altered depending on the findings of the review board.

“We did not achieve the primary objective of landing on the surface of the moon but we had an anomaly and after that anomaly we just had victory after victory after victory, showing the spacecraft was working in space, showing that the payloads can operate and getting data back from those those payloads and sending as much as we possibly can,” Thornton said.

Astrobotic has two of nine CLPS contracts awarded so far by NASA. Houston-based Intuitive Machines has the next planned launch, though, sending its Nova-C lander on a Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center next month aiming for a landing as soon as Feb. 22.

If successful, it would make the IM-1 mission the first successful commercial lander. Two commercial company endeavors had also come close in the last several years, but suffered crash landings instead.

“NASA is committed to supporting our U.S. commercial vendors as they navigate the really difficult task of sending science and technology to the surface of the moon because the benefits of this approach when it succeeds are going to be very great,” said NASA’s Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration at its Science Mission Directorate.

Soft landings on the moon have around a 40% success rate. With Astrobotic’s launch, there have been only 22 successful landings out of 55 attempts, including the six crewed landings of the Apollo missions. The latest actually occurred Friday a little more than 18 hours after Peregrine’s demise.

Japan became the fifth country to reach the moon after its spacecraft landed on the lunar surface

That’s because Japan’s space agency JAXA confirmed a successful landing of its Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission, touching down at 10:20 a.m. EST Friday.

Japan is only the fifth country to make a successful soft landing on the moon joining the U.S. and Soviet Union that first landed in the 1960s, China that has made three landings since 2007 and India, which accomplished its lone success last August.

“It looks like from the telemetry that SLIM is on the surface of the moon,” a JAXA commentator said during a live stream. “But we are checking the status.”

Nearly two hours later, JAXA confirmed the soft landing was successful and it was communicating with Earth, but that its solar cells were not generating power. So its life is limited to battery power that would only last a few hours.

Hitoshi Kuninaka, head of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said he believes that Japan’s space program at least achieved “minimum” success.

Nicknamed the Moon Sniper, it was launched on a Mitsubishi H2A rocket in September. It initially orbited Earth and entered lunar orbit on Christmas Day.

The small lander, equipped with a pad to cushion impact, was trying for a pinpoint touchdown with new technology that would reduce the potential landing target from what is normally a 6-mile-wide area to one that is only 330 feet wide. It landed near the Shioli crater, near a region covered in volcanic rock.

JAXA said the mission’s main goal would open the the ability to land “where we want to, rather than where it is easy to land.” After landing, the spacecraft was to attempt analyzing minerals with a special camera to seek clues about the origin of the moon.

Also on board were a pair of small autonomous probes called “lunar excursion vehicles” that were dropped from the lander before its touchdown. One of the probes was designed to try and film the landing while the second was a ball-shaped rover also with cameras.

Kuninaka said teams believe that both probes were launched and data was being transmitted back to Earth from the SLIM, and that it could be that images would be distributed in the coming weeks if received in time.

Takeshi Tsuchiya, aeronautics professor at the Graduate School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo, said it was important to confirm the accuracy of landing on a targeted area for the future of moon explorations.

“It is necessary to show the world that Japan has the appropriate technology in order to be able to properly assert Japan’s position in lunar development,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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