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Private lunar lander’s historic moon mission in jeopardy amid ‘critical loss of propellant’

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The commercial moon lander that launched atop the first Vulcan rocket ran into problems just hours into its flight Monday, putting its historic mission to the moon in apparent jeopardy.

Experts from Astobotic Technology, which built the Peregrine lunar lander, are now attempting to stabilize a loss of propellant caused by a failure in the lander’s propulsion system.

The United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket carrying Peregrine lifted off successfully from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:18 a.m. ET. And things were smooth when the Vulcan booster stage separated a few minutes later, sending the rocket’s Centaur upper stage on its journey to place Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander into orbit more than 220,000 miles above Earth, where it is supposed to intercept the moon. Peregrine, the first U.S. commercial moon lander, successfully separated from the Centaur upper stage about 51 minutes after launch.

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After separation, “an anomaly then occurred, which prevented Astrobotic from achieving a stable sun-pointing orientation,” the company said in a statement released about seven hours after launch.

The company said the likely cause of the problem was a “propulsion anomaly,” which could threaten Peregrine’s ability to “soft land” on the moon. The company also said that, after executing an improvised maneuver to reorient the lander’s solar panels toward the Sun, the spacecraft entered “an expected period of communication loss.”

More than an hour later, the Pittsburgh-based company said it re-established communication with Peregrine. “The team’s improvised maneuver was successful in reorienting Peregrine’s solar array towards the Sun,” Astrobotic said in another update. “We are now charging the battery.”

At 1 p.m. Monday afternoon, Astrobotic released another message, writing: “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.”

The Peregrine mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative to deliver science and technology to the moon’s surface. Peregrine, which is carrying NASA scientific instruments to study the lunar surface, was expected to land on the moon next month.

The CERT-1 flight test marks an important milestone for SpaceX rival United Launch Alliance, which was set up in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing Co.
BA
and Lockheed Martin Corp. 
LMT.
Since then, the company’s Delta and Atlas rockets have been used to send more than 150 missions into orbit.

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The Vulcan rocket, which is the successor to ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, is also transporting as a mission carrying cremated human remains into deep space.

The Centaur upper stage is carrying a payload from Celestis Memorial Spaceflights into deep space. The Celestis mission is launching more than 200 flight capsules containing cremated remains, DNA samples and messages of greetings from clients worldwide into deep space, ULA said. Portions of the cremated remains of several “Star Trek” icons — including creator Gene Roddenberry and actors James “Scotty” Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura — are on the Enterprise Flight, as well as DNA from presidents George Washington, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to Celestis. The late presidents’ DNA is in hair samples, the Houston Chronicle reported.

A separate Celestis payload, dubbed the Tranquility Flight, is being transported to the moon on the Peregrine lunar lander. Celestis did not return a request for comment on the Peregrine lunar lander anomaly.

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Vulcan’s booster propulsion is provided by a pair of BE-4 engines manufactured by Blue Origin, the space-rocket company founded by Amazon.com Inc.
AMZN
founder Jeff Bezos.

The BE-4 engines use liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas, a commercially available form of methane. Unlike other rocket propellants, such as kerosene, liquefied natural gas eliminates the need for expensive and complex pressurization systems, such as those utilizing helium, which is in increasingly scarce supply, according to ULA.

ULA had initially planned for a Vulcan debut launch last May, but that was pushed back when a Vulcan rocket’s upper stage suffered an anomaly during testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama in March, according to Space.com.

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The company subsequently planned to launch Vulcan in the early hours of Dec. 24, but delayed again to Jan. 8 to correct what ULA CEO Bruno described as “routine” ground issues.

Two solid rocket boosters, or SRBs, provided additional thrust for Vulcan’s debut flight. The new ULA rocket can integrate up to six of the Northrop Grumman Corp. 
NOC
 SRBs.

“So far, this has been an absolutely beautiful mission,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno during a livestream shortly after the rocket blasted into the Florida skies.



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