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Thursday, February 22, 2024

NASA urged Astrobotic to not ship its hamstrung spacecraft towards the Moon

A camera on Astrobotic's Peregrine spacecraft captured this view of a crescent Earth during its mission.
Enlarge / A digital camera on Astrobotic’s Peregrine spacecraft captured this view of a crescent Earth throughout its mission.

Astrobotic knew its first area mission can be rife with dangers. In any case, the corporate’s Peregrine spacecraft would try one thing by no means performed earlier than—touchdown a business spacecraft on the floor of the Moon.

Probably the most hazardous a part of the mission, really touchdown on the Moon, would occur greater than a month after Peregrine’s launch. However the robotic spacecraft by no means made it that far. Throughout Peregrine’s startup sequence after separation from its United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, one of many spacecraft’s propellant tanks ruptured, spewing treasured nitrogen tetroxide into area. The incident left Peregrine unable to land on the Moon, and it threatened to kill the spacecraft inside hours of liftoff.

What a wild journey we had been simply on, not the result we had been hoping for,” stated John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic.

Astrobotic’s management workforce, understanding of the corporate’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, swung into motion to save lots of the spacecraft. The propellant leak abated, and engineers wrestled management of the spacecraft to level its photo voltaic arrays towards the Solar, permitting its battery to recharge. Over time, Peregrine’s scenario stabilized, though it did not have sufficient propellant remaining to aim a descent to the lunar floor.

Peregrine continued on a trajectory out to 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, about the identical distance because the Moon’s orbit. Astrobotic’s authentic flight plan would have taken Peregrine on one lengthy elliptical loop round Earth, then the spacecraft would have reached the Moon throughout its second orbit.

On its approach again towards Earth, Peregrine was on a flight path that might convey it again into the environment, the place it could expend on reentry. That meant Astrobotic had a call to make. With Peregrine stabilized, ought to they try an engine burn to divert the spacecraft away from Earth onto a trajectory that might convey it to the neighborhood of the Moon? Or ought to Astrobotic hold Peregrine in line to reenter Earth’s environment and keep away from the chance of sending a crippled spacecraft out to the Moon?

Making lemonade out of lemons

This was the primary time Astrobotic had flown an area mission, and its management workforce had a lot to study. The malfunction that precipitated the propellant leak seems to have been with a valve that didn’t correctly reseat in the course of the propulsion system’s initialization sequence. This valve activated to pressurize the gasoline and oxidizer tanks with helium.

When the valve did not reseat, it despatched a “rush of helium” into the oxidizer system, Thornton stated. “I describe it as a rush as a result of it was very, very quick. “Inside slightly over a minute, the strain had risen to the purpose within the oxidizer facet that it was nicely past the proof restrict of the propulsion tank. We consider at that time the tank ruptured and led to, sadly, a catastrophic lack of propellant … for the first mission.”

Thornton described the glum temper of Astrobotic’s workforce after the propellant leak.

“We had been coming from the best excessive of an ideal launch and got here all the way down to the bottom low, after we discovered that the spacecraft not had the helium and not had the propulsion wanted to aim the Moon touchdown,” he stated. “What occurred subsequent, I believe, was fairly outstanding and galvanizing.”

In a press briefing Friday, Thornton outlined the obstacles Astrobotic’s controllers overcame to maintain Peregrine alive. With out a wholesome propulsion system, the spacecraft’s photo voltaic panels weren’t pointed on the Solar. With a couple of minutes to spare, one among Astrobotic’s engineers, John Shaffer, devised an answer to reorient the spacecraft to begin recharging its battery.

As Peregrine’s oxidizer tank misplaced strain, the leak fee slowed. At first, it regarded just like the spacecraft may need solely hours of propellant remaining. Then, Astrobotic reported on January 15 that the leak had “virtually stopped.” Mission controllers powered up the science payloads aboard the Peregrine lander, proving the devices labored and demonstrating the spacecraft might have returned knowledge from the lunar floor if it landed.

The small propulsive impulse from the leaking oxidizer drove Peregrine barely off beam, placing it on a course to convey it again into Earth’s environment. This arrange Astrobotic for a “very troublesome choice,” Thornton stated.

Astrobotic's first lunar lander, named Peregrine, at the company's Pittsburgh headquarters.
Enlarge / Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, named Peregrine, on the firm’s Pittsburgh headquarters.

Nudging Peregrine off its collision course with Earth would have required the spacecraft to fireplace its principal engines, and even when that labored, the lander would have wanted to carry out extra maneuvers to get near the Moon. A touchdown was nonetheless out of the query, however Thornton stated there was a small likelihood Astrobotic might have guided Peregrine towards a flyby or affect with the Moon.

“The factor we had been weighing was, ‘Ought to we ship this again to Earth, or ought to we take the chance to function it in cislunar area and see if we are able to ship this out farther?'” Thornton stated.

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