Earlier this month, the space company Astrobotic launched its Peregrine mission toward the moon, but the spacecraft never made it and ultimately burned up in Earth’s atmosphere.
During Astrobotic’s first press conference since its failed Peregrine mission, the company’s CEO, John Thornton, said Astrobotic is more excited than ever to attempt to send another lunar lander to the moon.
“We feel emboldened,” Thornton stated. “We are excited by this.” While the failed mission wasn’t the outcome the company hoped for, he said it’s learned a lot ahead of future launches.
Shortly after its launch on January 8, the Peregrine lander experienced a fuel leak that appears to have been due to a faulty valve. Astrobotic was forced to end the mission due to this mishap.
An external review board must assess the mission in order to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. This will help Astrobotic plan its next mission, Griffin. Griffin is scheduled to launch NASA’s VIPER lunar rover this November .
However, depending on what the review board finds could delay the Griffin mission.
“We are already assessing what those impacts could be for the Griffin program to make sure that this kind of anomaly never happens again,” Thornton said.
A faulty valve and a rush of fuel
Soon after Peregrine launched, Astrobotic’s team quickly concluded that a valve connecting the helium and the oxidizer failed to properly reseal. Thornton says that this theory is still valid over a week after the launch.
The valve was not sealed, allowing helium into the oxidizer. Thornton described the event as “a rush” because it happened so quickly. Rising pressure ruptured the tank, causing a catastrophic loss of propellant.
At this point the mission objectives changed. Peregrine’s payloads were activated, and they sent signals and data back. “A lot of those payloads were able to report some interesting data,” Thornton said.
Getting to the bottom of the anomaly
While Peregrine’s mission just ended, outside experts have been reaching out to Astrobotic to be part of the anomaly review board, Thornton said.
“This really truly is humanity against the most challenging environment known to humankind,” he said. “The space environment and the comradery that comes out in times of challenge is remarkable, and we’re certainly uplifted by that.”
NASA plans to provide technical experts for the review board as well, Joel Kearns, the agency’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during the press conference.
“We want to make sure we really understand the root cause and the contributing factors of what happened on Peregrine,” Kearns said. This could prompt the agency to make some changes to Griffin’s mission.
Thornton said he expects the review will lead to some changes with Griffin, but it’s too early to tell what they are and how many there will be. “Right now we’re just focused on getting to that program and flight as fast as possible,” he said.
Risk versus reward for NASA
NASA had five payloads aboard Peregrine and planned to pay $108 million to Astrobotics if the company hit 10% of certain milestones during the mission. During the call, Thornton said it hadn’t met those goals.
Kearns said NASA hasn’t fully assessed the mission to determine what its final payment to Astrobotics will be. However, he said that NASA is purposefully embracing risk as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, partnering with commercial companies to reach the moon.
“Failure is often part of the road to success,” he said. New companies will innovate, and “we will all learn and grow from each flight.”