Peregrine only has hours left, its fuel leaking away

According to a number of recent updates by Astrobotic, its Peregrine lunar lander only only a few more hours of life left, its fuel leaking away due to the failure of a valve to close inside its oxygen tank.

Astrobotic’s current hypothesis about the Peregrine spacecraft’s propulsion anomaly is that a valve between the helium pressurant and the oxidizer failed to reseal after actuation during initialization. This led to a rush of high pressure helium that spiked the pressure in the oxidizer tank beyond its operating limit and subsequently ruptured the tank.

The company also noted that the Vulcan rocket did no harm to the spacecraft during launch, placing it in the correct orbit. The tank rupture however means it will not land on the Moon, and in fact is likely not going to escape Earth orbit. Sometime in the next day or so the spacecraft will run out of fuel, and at that point it will be fly out of control, its batteries draining because the solar panels will no longer point to the Sun.

How this failure will impact Astrobotic’s next and larger lander, Griffin, remains unknown. It is presently scheduled to land on the Moon in November 2024.

Astrobotic gets ESA’s first commercially purchased lunar lander payload

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic yesterday announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) has purchased payload space on the company’s Griffin lunar lander for a commercially produced camera.

This is the first commercial payload ESA has purchased for a lunar mission. The camera will fly as a secondary payload on Griffin’s first mission, which will deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the Moon’s south pole in 2024. The camera is being built by a French startup called Lunar Logistics Services.

NASA delays launch of its VIPER lunar rover to over concerns about commercial lander

VIPER's planned route on the Moon
VIPER’s planned route at the Moon’s south pole

In order to do more engineering tests of Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander, NASA has now delayed the launch of its VIPER lunar rover from November 2023 to November 2024.

NASA’s decision to pursue a 2024 delivery date results from the agency’s request to Astrobotic for additional ground testing of the company’s Griffin lunar lander, which will deliver VIPER to the lunar surface through CLPS. The additional tests aim to reduce the overall risk to VIPER’s delivery to the Moon. To complete the additional NASA-mandated tests of the Griffin lunar lander, an additional $67.8 million has been added to Astrobotic’s CLPS contract, which now totals $320.4 million.

Though the press release makes no mention of it, the launch of Astrobotic’s Griffin lander is partly dependent on the launch of Astrobotic’s first and smaller lunar lander, Peregrine, which was originally supposed to fly on the inaugural flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, in 2021. That rocket’s first flight however has been delayed repeatedly because of delays by Blue Origin in completing development of the BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage. It is presently scheduled for early 2023, but that date remains tentative. This new delay of Griffin could be to make sure Peregrine flies first.

Regardless, this new budget increase means that the budget for Griffin has experienced a 62% cost overrun from its original $199 million number. This large increase in what is supposed to be a fixed price contract suggests that Astrobotic has been having some problems unstated by NASA, despite an inspector general report [pdf] that said all was going reasonably well.

Inspector General: NASA’s lunar rover VIPER mission on schedule, with some cost increases

VIPER's planned route on the Moon

According to a report [pdf] issued today by NASA’s inspector general, the agency’s VIPER lunar rover mission is generally on schedule for its ’23 launch, though it has experienced some cost increases and still carries some scheduling risks, mostly related to the development of Astrobotic’s commercial Griffin lunar lander, and its precursor Peregrine mission that ULA hopes to launch on its first Vulcan rocket test.

Although Astrobotic personnel explained that Griffin’s development schedule is largely independent of its Peregrine mission, the Peregrine Lander—planned to launch in 2022—has multiple systems and subsystems that will also be used on Griffin. Therefore, any technical problems with these systems may adversely affect development of the Griffin Lander because Astrobotic would only have about a year, depending on the Peregrine launch date and start of lunar operations, to resolve the issues prior to NASA delivering VIPER for integration and launch. Furthermore, any failures during the Peregrine mission may lead to Griffin delays as NASA and Astrobotic investigate the failures and develop corrective actions.

In addition, VIPER long-lead acquisitions—such as the rover solar power array and avionics unit—have been affected by aerospace industry supply chain delays caused by COVID-19 as have delivery of computer boards and motor parts. Both of these issues have impacted design verification testing needed for the mission’s Critical Design Review, while COVID-19 also delayed some component development schedules.

Peregrine’s launch has been delayed by a year because Vulcan has been delayed because of Blue Origin’s problems with the BE-4 rocket engine. Though ULA hopes the Vulcan/Peregrine launch can occur late this year, that date remains very much in doubt. Further launch delays would thus threaten the launch of Griffin and VIPER.

As for the cost increases, the IG found that NASA had been forced to increase the budget for VIPER by 18.1%, a relatively minor increase compared to many of NASA’s other big projects. The IG noted however that further cost overruns are very possible, especially if the Peregrine mission experiences problems.

The photo above shows the rover’s presently planned route in the relatively flat area about 85 miles from the Moon’s south pole and near the western edge of Nobile Crater (pronounced No-BEEL-e).