Private American space company Astrobotic has announced its doomed lunar lander is now on a path back towards Earth. Peregrine has been leaking fuel since last week, and any hopes for a "hard" landing on the Moon have been dashed. Instead, Astrobotic is aiming for a controlled burning up in Earth's atmosphere.
After a successful launch on January 8, the world has been watching what was billed as the first-ever private US mission to land on the Moon. Unfortunately, the lander hit trouble shortly after heading out of the Earth's atmosphere, leaving it unable to point its solar panels at the Sun.
Without enough energy to get to the Moon and make a soft landing, the team has been working hard to deliver its payloads, successfully delivering power to all 10 experiments that needed it. As well as communicating with the ground, some even achieved science objectives, according to Astrobotic.
But there was still the matter of what to do with the lander itself, a decision which had to be made quickly as the propellant continued to leak, albeit at a slowed rate.
"Yesterday afternoon, we test-fired one of the main engines for the first time. We achieved a 200-millisecond burn and acquired data that indicated Peregrine could have main engine propulsive capability," the team wrote in an update on January 14.
"However, due to the anomaly, the fuel-to-oxidizer ratio is well outside of the normal operating range of the main engines, making long controlled burns impossible. The team projects that the spacecraft has enough remaining propellant to maintain Sun pointing and perform small maneuvers."
Currently, 376,500 kilometers (240,000 miles) away from Earth, Astrobotic is working with NASA to return the spacecraft for a controlled re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. This may seem a little dramatic, but burning it up in the Earth's atmosphere, and controlling its path, is preferable to leaving potential debris floating around, which could make its way to Earth in an uncontrolled path, or cause problems for other spacecraft.
The team believes the lander could have a few weeks of operational time left in it, but ultimately the decision was taken to put the craft on course to re-enter our atmosphere.
"While we believe it is possible for the spacecraft to operate for several more weeks and could potentially have raised the orbit to miss the Earth, we must take into consideration the anomalous state of the propulsion system and utilize the vehicle’s onboard capability to end the mission responsibly and safely," Astrobitc said.
"We do not believe Peregrine’s re-entry poses safety risks, and the spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere."