Peregrine Moon lander expected to crash to Earth after wild ride in space

The vehicle experienced a fuel leak that made it impossible to land on the lunar surface

A Vulcan Centaur carries the Peregrine Moon-landing vehicle into space on January 8. Photo: ULA / EPA
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A Moon-landing vehicle is expected to crash back to Earth after failing to reach the lunar surface because of a fuel leak.

The Peregrine lander, built by US company Astrobotic, is expected to re-enter the planet's atmosphere on January 19, at 1am, UAE time.

The lander would "re-enter safely" and burn up in Earth's atmosphere, the US company said.

"Astrobotic has positioned the Peregrine spacecraft for a safe, controlled re-entry to Earth over a remote area of the South Pacific," the company said.

"The team has been continuously monitoring our re-entry analysis with Nasa, which indicates a re-entry path over the indicated area below, with no anticipated hazards.

"A safe re-entry is our top priority, so the team developed a two-step manoeuvre to move the spacecraft and change its projected trajectory."

Peregrine, which was carrying Nasa technology and human remains on board as part of a science experiment, launched into space on January 8 aboard the Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Shortly after separating from the rocket, the landing vehicle developed a propellant leak that made it impossible for it to execute a soft landing on the lunar surface.

Astrobotic said that the leak may have been caused by a trapped valve that caused a fuel tank to rupture.

Ensuring a safe re-entry

The two manoeuvres the company is carrying out on Peregrine includes firing the main engines with short burns.

Engineers also adjusted the craft's attitude (positioning) so that the force created by the leaking propellant shifted the vehicle to the South Pacific ocean.

"The procedures the team executed were to minimise the risk of debris reaching land," Astrobotic said.

It is not unusual for spacecraft debris to re-enter Earth, because the planet's gravity pulls objects back.

Previously, remnants of Chinese rockets and debris from SpaceX's Dragon trunk have fallen back to Earth.

Defunct satellites are also sometimes directed into Earth's atmosphere so they can burn up.

Unexpected journey in space

Peregrine has been operating in space for 10 days now even though it was expected to lose power hours after the propellant leak began.

It was hoped that it would enter lunar orbit and carry out a hard landing on the surface.

Instead, its trajectory led the vehicle back towards Earth.

Another failed private Moon mission

Only the US, the former Soviet Union, China and most recently India have been able to make a soft landing on the Moon.

Astrobotic was the third company to launch a private mission to the Moon, in what was the first American Moon landing attempt in more than 50 years.

Previous attempts by Israel and a Japanese company called iSpace, which carried the UAE's Rashid rover, failed.

Moon-landing vehicles cannot use parachutes to slow for a touchdown as they can on Earth and Mars.

Instead, they need to use thrusters to brake and adjust their positioning to land softly on the surface.

Japan's space agency, Jaxa, will attempt a Moon landing on Friday, with its landing vehicle called SLIM.

Intuitive Machines, another American company, has developed the IM-1 Moon lander, which is expected to launch this year.

Updated: January 18, 2024, 10:30 AM