Propellant issues threaten to scupper US Moon return

Hopes of Pittsburgh-based space company Astrobotic returning the US to the Moon in February are waning a hit following propulsion issues for its Peregrine spacecraft shortly after rocket separation.

Despite efforts to resolve issues, Astrobotic is now re-evaluating whether the mission can be salvaged.

Peregrine successfully launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket in the early hours of Monday morning local time but encountered issues after separation.

A rocket blasts off at night.
The United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket lifts off carrying the Peregrine lunar lander. Credit: by Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Images

An “anomaly” with its propulsion systems arose shortly after activation, with the spacecraft unable to angle its solar arrays toward the Sun. Correct positioning of this array is necessary to generate electricity for Peregrine’s systems in space.

According to statements released by Astrobotic, the ship’s battery was reaching “operationally low levels” because of these issues.

The company confirmed a propulsion system failure and  a problem with its propellant, saying in a mission update:

“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.”

Further updates are expected as the mission approaches its first day after launch.

Side view of the astrobotic  peregrine space craft from a rear view camera in space.
A view of the Peregrine spacecraft showing its Multi-Layer Insulation (MLI) in the foreground. The distortion of the MLI indicates to Astrobotic that there is a propulsion system anomaly. Credit: Astrobiotic

Several science missions are being conveyed to the moon as part Peregrine One, including five projects from NASA.

In its own statement, the space agency confirmed it is supporting Astrobotic in its attempts to restore the mission.

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