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A Possible Explanation Arises for Peregrine Lunar Mission Failure

The Peregrine lander has less than a day to live, and the company behind the spacecraft may have figured out why its mission was doomed shortly after its launch.

Astrobotic is blaming a faulty valve for Peregrine’s critical fuel loss, which made its soft landing on the Moon unachievable, the Pittsburgh-based company shared in its most recent update on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday.

The 2,829-pound (1,283-kilogram) Peregrine lander launched on Monday on board United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. The spacecraft powered on and even made contact through NASA’s Deep Space Network, but Peregrine’s journey to the Moon started falling apart shortly thereafter. The spacecraft began to lose propellant at a critical rate, prompting Astrobotic to give up on any chance of its lunar lander touching down on the Moon.

The company has been incessantly—and welcomingly—sharing updates on its beloved Peregrine since its launch, with the eighth update including details of what might have gone wrong. During Peregrine’s in-space deployment, it seems that a troublesome valve, which regulates the helium gas flow in its propulsion system to keep the pressure balanced, failed to close properly. Without it being sealed, an excessive amount of helium rushed into the tank that holds the oxidizer (which provides the necessary oxygen to allow the fuel to burn in space). This caused the pressure inside the tank to spike beyond its intended limit, leading to the tank’s rupture and the subsequent spewing of Peregrine’s precious propellant. At least, that’s the going theory.

Spacecraft engineers conduct extensive testing of missions on the ground before launch, but they have no way of really knowing how their equipment will behave in the frigid vacuum of space. Either that or the space industry seriously needs a new valve guy (seriously—why is always the valve??).

In Tuesday’s update, Astrobotic also clarified that ULA’s Vulcan Centaur was not to blame for the anomaly, adding that the rocket’s maiden flight placed Peregrine in the designated orbit.

Astrobotic was hoping that its Peregrine lander would become the first commercial spacecraft to touchdown on the Moon’s dusty surface. The lander is funded through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, which is meant to usher in a new era of privately owned drop-offs of government and privately owned payloads on the lunar surface.

Peregrine is packed with over 20 different payloads from three national space agencies, with 11 payloads from NASA alone, as well as a host of other payloads from private companies. NASA’s payloads on board Peregrine include the Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA), which uses laser beams to accurately measure the distance between the Moon and Earth, and the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), which measures radiation at the lunar surface for astronaut safety during future missions.

Other payloads include a swarm of tiny robots from Mexico, a time capsule from Carnegie Mellon that includes images, poems, music pieces, as well as the for two space memorial companies. The two companies, Celestis and Elysium Space, packed DNA (in the form of hair samples) and the cremated remains of more than 200 people on a space memorial mission, with customers buying a chance for their loved ones to be sent into deep space or buried on the Moon.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Peregrine won’t land on the Moon but the spacecraft has continued to persevere with just enough propellant that will last it for another 20 hours or so, according to Astrobotic. “The team continues to work to find ways to extend Peregrine’s operational life,” the company wrote on X. “We are in a stable operating mode and are working payload and spacecraft tests and checkouts.”

Astrobotic added that it is receiving valuable data from its failed mission that will feed into Griffin, its next lunar lander. We still need some time to get over Peregrine though.

For more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X (formerly Twitter) and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.

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