Peregrine sent back this image from its now abandoned lunar mission

The lander is expected to lose power only five days after launching.
An image taken by a camera aboard the Peregrine spacecraft, with Earth in the top right.

An image taken by a camera aboard the Peregrine spacecraft, with Earth in the top right. Astrobotic

Following a successful launch aboard a Vulcan Centaur Rocket on Monday January 8, private space company Astrobotic has abandoned its attempt to land its Peregrine spacecraft on the moon. In an update from the Pittsburgh-based company, Astrobotic reported that Peregrine sent back a few images from the earlier parts of its journey. One of the images showed what Astrobotic described as a “curved sliver” that appears to be Earth. 

[Related: Peregrine lunar lander experiences ‘critical loss of propellant’ following successful launch.]

“Our flight dynamics team has confirmed that the curved sliver in this image taken on our first day of operations is, in fact, Earth! This image from our spacecraft simulator shows the camera’s view of Earth at the time the photo was taken,” the company wrote in the January 10 update.

Astrobotic also has gathered data from the payloads that were designed to communicate with the lander. “All 10 payloads requiring power have received it, while the remaining 10 payloads aboard the spacecraft are passive,” Astrobotic wrote in a January 11 update. “These payloads have now been able to prove operational capability in space and payload teams are analyzing the impact of this development now.”

What went wrong?

About seven hours after launch, Peregrine was unable to shift its solar panels towards the sun so that its batteries could charge. While the engineering team was able to turn the panels, more problems developed. 

Astrobotic believed that the root of the problem was a failure in the vehicle’s propulsion system that was causing a critical loss of propellant. The company shared the first image of the lander in space, with its outer insulation appearing very crinkled. 

The first image from Peregrine in space. The camera is mounted atop a payload deck and shows Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) in the foreground.
The first image from Peregrine in space. The camera is mounted atop a payload deck and shows Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) in the foreground. CREDIT: Astrobotic.

By Monday evening, Astrobotic announced that this fuel leak was causing the thrusters in the spacecraft’s attitude control system to “operate well beyond their expected service life cycles to keep the lander from an uncontrollable tumble.” The mission’s priority also became maximizing the data and scientific information that Peregrine could capture and send back to Earth. 

On Tuesday January 9 Astrobotic said that the leak meant that “there is, unfortunately, no chance of a soft landing on the moon. By January 10, Peregrine was roughly 192,000 miles from Earth. The spacecraft was “stable and fully charged” and gathering “valuable data.” They estimated that it will likely shut down at around sometime on Friday January 12.

[Related: Inside NASA’s messy plan to return to the moon by 2024.]

What will happen to Peregrine?

On January 15, Astrobotic announced that the lander is headed back towards the Earth, where it is expected to burn up while entering the atmosphere. It is coordinating with NASA and is not expected to cause any danger on Earth.

Its payload contained DNA samples and portions of cremated remains of three former United States presidents, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and several members of the original cast of the groundbreaking sci-fi series. 

What is next for public-private lunar exploration?

With this mission, Astrobotic hoped to become the first private business to successfully land on the moon. This is a feat only four countries–Russia, China, India, and the United States–have accomplished. 

A second lander from Houston-based Intuitive Machines is scheduled to launch in February. NASA has given both of these companies millions of dollars to construct and fly their own lunar landers, so that the privately owned landers can explore landing sites before astronauts arrive and deliver critical technology and experiments. Astrobotic’s contract with NASA for the Peregrine lander was $108 million with more to come

[Related: NASA delays two crewed Artemis moon missions.]

This week, NASA leadership announced that it is delaying future missions to the moon, citing safety issues and delays in developing lunar landers and spacesuits. Originally scheduled to launch in November of this year, the Artemis II mission that will send four astronauts around the moon has been postponed to September 2025. Meanwhile, the moon-landing mission Artemis III will now aim for September 2026 instead of late 2025. The Artemis IV mission remains on track for September 2028.

Update January 16, 11:10 AM: Additional information from the company about the lander reentering Earth’s atmosphere has been added.