The first American device to attempt to land on the Moon in more than fifty years encountered an “anomaly” in flight, after its successful takeoff on Monday January 8, announced the company Astrobotic which developed it. “Unfortunately, it appears that the failure within the propulsion system is causing “a critical loss” of fuel, the startup said in a statement published on Alternative missions would be possible at present. »

The lander took off before dawn on Monday from Florida, aboard the new Vulcan Centaur rocket from the ULA group, which brings together Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The device, named Peregrine, was powered on shortly after separation from the rocket, and communication was successfully established. “After activating the propulsion system, Peregrine entered a fully operational operating state,” Astrobotic explained. “Unfortunately, an anomaly occurred that prevented Astrobotic from achieving a stable orientation facing the Sun,” the company added earlier.

However, the lander includes solar panels which must be directed towards the Sun “in order to allow maximum electrical production”, according to the company’s documentation. “If so,” it “jeopardizes the spacecraft’s ability to land on the Moon,” the company said, adding that the craft’s batteries were reaching “low operational levels.” An “improvised maneuver” was ultimately successful and “the ship’s battery is now full,” the company later said. However, she added that the problem was the result of a problem with the propulsion system, causing “a critical loss” of fuel.

Astrobotic has published an image showing part of the exterior of the device, visibly damaged: a photo which supports the hypothesis of a propulsion problem. “We are using existing power to perform as many vessel and cargo operations as possible,” the company added without elaborating.

The mission caused controversy

Peregrine was developed by Astrobotic with support from NASA, which contracted the company to transport scientific equipment to the Moon – a $108 million contract. If Astrobotic manages to land on the Moon as planned on February 23, it could become the first company to achieve this feat.

In recent years, Israeli and Japanese companies have attempted to land on the Moon, but these missions ended in crashes.

“Leading America’s return to the surface of the Moon, for the first time since Apollo, is a tremendous honor,” Astrobotic boss John Thornton said at a press conference on Friday. However, he said he was aware of the risks of failure.

The launch inaugurates a series of missions supported by the American space agency, which wishes to rely partly on the private sector for its lunar ambitions. These missions “support a growing private space economy, by showing the strength of American technology and innovation”, welcomed Bill Nelson, head of NASA, just after takeoff.

The targeted landing site for the machine is located on the visible side of the Moon, near mysterious domes, formed by lava, but which scientists struggle to explain. Thanks to the instruments shipped, NASA must study the composition of the surface, as well as the radiation.

The mission also caused controversy: Among the private client shipments being transported were the ashes or DNA of dozens of people, including those of the creator of the popular science fiction television series Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. A partnership with the company Celestis, specializing in “commemorative spaceflights”.

Sending these ashes to the Moon aroused the anger of the Navajo Native American tribe, which denounced the “desecration of a sacred place” for “many Native American cultures”, without however obtaining the postponement of the launch.

A major milestone for NASA

This mission represents a major step for NASA, which seeks to encourage the development of a lunar economy. It has signed a contract with several companies, including Astrobotic, to send scientific equipment to the Moon. The program, called CLPS, provides companies with crucial financing. Another selected company, Intuitive Machines, is also scheduled to launch for the Moon in mid-February with a SpaceX rocket.

This new strategy should allow NASA “to make the trip more often, faster and cheaper,” explained Joel Kearns, a senior official within the space agency. These missions which study the lunar environment should in particular make it possible to prepare the return of astronauts to the Moon, which NASA is planning with its Artemis program.

To date, only the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India have succeeded in landing a device on the Moon. A mission from the Japanese space agency, JAXA, is also scheduled to attempt a landing in about two weeks. Russia, for its part, spectacularly missed a moon landing this summer.