NASA urged Astrobotic not to send its hamstrung spacecraft toward the Moon | Space

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

Astrobotic knew its first space mission would be rife with risks. After all, the company’s Peregrine spacecraft would attempt something never done before—landing a commercial spacecraft on the surface of the Moon.

The most hazardous part of the mission, actually landing on the Moon, would happen more than a month after Peregrine’s launch. But the robotic spacecraft never made it that far. During Peregrine’s startup sequence after separation from its United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, one of the spacecraft’s propellant tanks ruptured, spewing precious nitrogen tetroxide into space. The incident left Peregrine unable to land on the Moon, and it threatened to kill the spacecraft within hours of liftoff.

What a wild adventure we were just on, not the outcome we were hoping for,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic.

Astrobotic’s control team, working out of the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, swung into action to save the spacecraft. The propellant leak abated, and engineers wrestled control of the spacecraft to point its solar arrays toward the Sun, allowing its battery to recharge. Over time, Peregrine’s situation stabilized, although it didn’t have enough propellant remaining to attempt a descent to the lunar surface.

Peregrine continued on a trajectory out to 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) from Earth, about the same distance as the Moon’s orbit. Astrobotic’s original flight plan would have taken Peregrine on one long elliptical loop around Earth, then the spacecraft would have reached the Moon during its second orbit.

On its way back toward Earth, Peregrine was on a flight path that would bring it back into the atmosphere, where it would burn up on reentry. That meant Astrobotic had a decision to make. With Peregrine stabilized, should they attempt an…

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