US Moon mission runs into technical difficulties

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The lunar mission that launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on Monday has run into technical difficulties, jeopardising US hopes of returning to the Moon for the first time in half a century.

Several hours after separating from the Vulcan Centaur rocket, the lunar lander, called Peregrine, experienced a “propulsion anomaly” that stopped it from pointing its solar panels stably at the Sun, manufacturer Astrobotic Technology said.

Engineers reoriented the panels and started to restore power but Astrobotic said it had been forced to consider “alternative missions” after reporting a critical loss of propellant.

In a post on X astronaut Chris Hadfield said: “Not looking good for Peregrine to land on the Moon — propulsion system failures are a misery. Up to the Astrobotic team to wring every last bit of learning out of this mission.”

Monday’s launch marked the first flight of the Vulcan Centaur heavy rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

If the lander reaches the lunar surface safely, it will be the first successful commercial mission to the Moon. An attempt by Japan’s iSpace last April failed when its lander crashed on the surface.

John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said earlier on Monday that the launch was the “dawn of a new era” for space exploration.

“It is an opportunity for commercial payloads to fly to the Moon on a regular basis,” he said from Cape Canaveral’s control room. “It means our scientists . . . can access the Moon like never before.”

Peregrine is the first of eight planned missions in Nasa’s commercial lunar payload services initiative, a vital step in the US space agency’s Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo programme ended in 1972.

Nasa hopes it can reduce the cost of future missions by sponsoring the private sector.

Peregrine is carrying five scientific payloads to the lunar surface for Nasa, alongside 15 others, including from Hungary, Mexico and the UK.

The launch marked the start of Peregrine’s 384,400km journey. But once in Moon’s orbit, the lunar lander was scheduled to wait until it was light enough on the lunar surface, with a landing set to be attempted around February 23.

The launch of the 61-metre Vulcan is a milestone for Colorado-based ULA, which is reported to have been put up for sale by its joint owners. The rocket, which weighed 663 tonnes when fully fuelled, has been more than a decade in development.

However its launch has suffered delays due to issues with the BE-4 engines provided by Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and an explosion during testing last March.

This flight is the first of two that will certify Vulcan for military payloads, with the second expected in April. Vulcan has four more flights booked during this year, with a backlog of more than 70 planned. It is hoping to fly twice a month by the end of next year.

Vulcan is also seeking to snare a share of the rapidly growing commercial launch sector but comes to market as SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk prepares for a third attempt to launch his giant Starship.

SpaceX has already revolutionised launch costs with its reusable Falcon rocket, and Starship’s capacity of 100-150 tonnes is widely expected to drive these down even further.

ULA is several years away from deploying reusable technology, the company’s executives said in a pre-launch briefing on Friday, raising the expected cost of Vulcan launches.

Nasa initially paid $79mn for Peregrine to ride on Vulcan, but the cost increased to $108mn as a result of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic and a decision to alter the landing site, Nasa officials said.

A second payload from space memorial group Celestis is being carried on Centaur, the rocket’s upper stage, and will begin to travel towards the Sun in about four days’ time. The Enterprise flight is sending the cremated remains and DNA of Star Trek creator and screenwriter Gene Roddenberry and that of cast members including Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Lt Uhura in the TV and film series, into deep space, eventually to circle the Sun at a safe orbit.

Video: Moon rush: the launch of a lunar economy | FT Film

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