The launch of the United Launch Alliance new Vulcan rocket carrying the Astrobotic Peregrine spacecraft at 2:18 a.m. ET was flawless. And approximately two hours later Astrobotic issued a press release saying that they had “successfully contacted the lander and began receiving telemetry. ” Everything seemed fine, but the next update several hours brought to light an anomaly that appears to have put the landing in jeopardy.
The Peregrine spacecraft is the first launch of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. NASA has high hopes for the initiative and next month we’re expecting the second launch. But all launches have risk, and with a new rocket launching the Peregrine spacecraft, there was an added risk. But the launch went smoothly. And in its first post-launch press release Astrobotic added that the “Vulcan lifted Peregrine to an altitude of approximately 500 km above the Earth, where, at approximately 50 minutes after launch, the lander separated from the rocket and successfully powered on. Following separation, Astrobotic successfully contacted the lander and began receiving telemetry.”
So it seemed that the spacecraft was on its way to the Moon. But the first of several updates brought news of an anomaly.
“After successfully separating from United Launce Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander began receiving telemetry via the NASA Deep Space Network. Astrobotic-built avionics systems, including the primary command and data handling unit, as well as the thermal, propulsion, and power controllers, all powered on and performed as expected. After successful propulsion systems activation, Peregrine entered a safe operational state. Unfortunately, an anomaly then occurred, which prevented Astrobotic from achieving a stable sun-pointing orientation. The team is responding in real time as the situation unfolds and will be providing updates as more data is obtained and analyzed.”
At this point Astrobotic was in full troubleshooting mode. The first update with mention of the anomaly was sent a little more seven hours after launch.
Two hours later came the second update.
“We continue to gather data and report our best assessment of what we see. The team believes that the likely cause of the unstable sun-pointing is a propulsion anomaly that, if proven true, threatens the ability of the spacecraft to soft land on the Moon. As the team fights to troubleshoot the issue, the spacecraft battery is reaching operationally low levels. Just before entering a known period of communication outage, the team developed and executed an improvised maneuver to reorient the solar panels toward the Sun. Shortly after this maneuver, the spacecraft entered an expected period of communication loss. We will provide more updates as Peregrine comes in view of the ground station again.”
At this point the language in the update suggested there had been a serious anomaly and that the mission would unlikely be able to complete a soft landing on the Moon.
Astrobotic sent out a more detailed update in three parts at around 4:35 p.m. ET which all but confirmed the worst possible news.
“We have successfully re-established communications with Peregrine after the known communication blackout. The team’s improvised maneuver was successful in reorienting Peregrine’s solar array towards the Sun. We are now charging the battery. The Mission Anomaly Board continues to evaluate the data we’re receiving and is assessing the status of what we believe to be the root of the anomaly: a failure within the propulsion system.”
“We are grateful for the outpouring of support we’re receiving– from messages on social media to phone calls and helping hands. This is what makes the space industry so special, that we unite in the face of adversity. A heartfelt thank you from the entire Peregrine Mission One team.”
“Unfortunately, it appears the failure within the propulsion system is causing a critical loss of propellant. The team is working to try and stabilize this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture. We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”
“We’ve received the first image from Peregrine in space! The camera utilized is mounted atop a payload deck and shows Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) in the foreground. The disturbance of the MLI is the first visual clue that aligns with our telemetry data pointing to a propulsion system anomaly.“
“Nonetheless, the spacecraft’s battery is now fully charged, and we are using Peregrine’s existing power to perform as many payload and spacecraft operations as possible.“
“At this time, the majority of our Peregrine mission team has been awake and working diligently for more than 24 hours. We ask for your patience as we reassess incoming data so we can provide ongoing updates later this evening.“
We’ll have more details on the anomaly in the next update and likely a hint of what science can be salvaged from the mission. So stay tuned on this developing story.
Watch the complete launch video.