Nasa Peregrine 1: moon lander suffering from ‘critical loss of propellant’

US firm Astrobotic says it is assessing ‘alternative mission profiles’ after finding failure in propulsion system

A private moon mission that blasted into space on Monday appeared to be in jeopardy after suffering a “critical loss of propellant” and operators said they are considering alternatives for the mission.

After lift-off on Monday, the Peregrine Mission One (PM1) – which carries a piece of technology developed by UK scientists – experienced an “anomaly” that would have prevented the lander from achieving a stable position pointing towards the sun, according to Astrobotic, the US firm behind the project.

While this was fixed, the company established that it was being caused by a failure in the propulsion system, and further investigation revealed the craft was losing propellant.

Across two separate statements, the company said: “We have successfully re-established communications with Peregrine after the known communication blackout. The team’s improvised manoeuvre 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.

“Unfortunately, it appears the failure within the propulsion system is causing a critical loss of propellant. The team is working to try and stabilise this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritised maximizing the science and data we can capture. We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”

The lander carrying Nasa scientific equipment initially launched successfully on the Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The Peregrine lunar lander during construction.
The Peregrine lunar lander during construction. Photograph: Esa/Nasa/The Open University/STFC RAL Space/Astrobotic/PA

It marks the first launch of the powerful new rocket built by the Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance, and an attempt to make the first US lunar soft landing in 50 years.

The Peregrine lunar lander launched at 7.18 GMT, aiming to become the first lunar landing by a private firm – a feat that has proven elusive in recent years.

Within minutes of separation from the rocket, Astrobotic mission control received signal from the lander, which will go into a highly elliptical orbit to put it on course to its destination.

Peregrine is scheduled to land on 23 February and begin gathering data about the lunar surface before planned future human missions.

It is the first mission to fly under Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) initiative, a scheme in which the space agency pays private companies to deliver scientific equipment to the moon.

Peregrine carries five Nasa payloads and 15 others. Its instruments are intended to measure radiation levels, surface and subsurface water ice, the magnetic field, and the extremely tenuous layer of gas called the exosphere. The readings are expected to help minimise risks and harness the moon’s natural resources when humans return to its surface.

Also onboard are the first Latin American scientific instruments attempting to reach the surface of the moon. Five small moon rovers, each weighing less than 60g and measuring 12cm across, are expected to be deployed. Carnegie Mellon University has a rover onboard as well.

More controversially, the lander contains non-scientific payloads, including a physical coin “loaded with one bitcoin” and a Japanese “lunar dream capsule” that contains 185,872 messages from children from around the world.

The rocket launch was a crucial first for United Launch Alliance. Vulcan has spent roughly a decade in development to replace ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket and to rival the reusable Falcon 9 from Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the satellite launch market.

Speaking after the deployment of the lunar lander payload, the ULA chief executive, Tory Bruno, said “I am so thrilled. I am so proud of this team. Oh my gosh, this has been years of hard work.

“So far this has been an absolutely beautiful mission. Back to the moon. Our team has done such a good job. This is just … it’s hard to describe.”

He said they were the only team in the market who could deliver what the US needed. Monday’s flight was one of two test launches before the rocket system can be certified to carry national security payloads for the US space force.

As well as the lunar lander, the mission is also delivering a memorial payload into space containing the remains and DNA of several people associated with the Star Trek television franchise, including the actors James Doohan, DeForest Kelley and Nichelle Nichols.