Moon Lander Malfunctions After Launch, Raising Questions for NASA

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After a flawless launch to orbit, the privately built robotic Peregrine lander is unlikely to reach the lunar surface because of a failure in its propulsion system.

The first NASA-financed commercial mission to send a robotic spacecraft to the surface of the moon will most likely not be able to make it there.

The lunar lander, named Peregrine and built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, encountered problems shortly after it lifted off early Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The launch of the rocket, a brand-new design named Vulcan, was flawless, successfully sending Peregrine on its journey.

But a failure in the lander’s propulsion system depleted its propellant and most likely ended the mission’s original lunar ambitions.

“The team is working to try and stabilize the loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” Astrobotic said in a statement. “We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”

The failure raises questions about NASA’s strategy of relying on private companies, mostly small startups, for getting science experiments to the lunar surface. Those scientific studies are part of the space agency’s preparations ahead of sending astronauts back to the moon under its Artemis program.

Peregrine was the first of the missions under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, or CLPS, to get off the ground. Ever since CLPS was announced in 2018, NASA officials have said that they are willing to take greater risks in exchange for lower costs and that they expect some of the missions to fail.

That is in contrast to the Apollo program of the 1960s, in which NASA built a series of its own robotic lunar landers. But that approach is expensive, and this time NASA wanted to encourage private industry to come up with its own solutions that would be cheaper and might create a new market for universities, businesses and the space agencies of other nations that want to send payloads to the moon.

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