NASA moon landing and Star Trek space burial in question after positioning snafu
NASA’s first soft lunar landing since the 1972 Apollo 17 – and a deep space burial mission for Star Trek castmates and its creator – are now up in the air after the Astrobotic Peregrine moon lander hits a positioning snafu in space.
In a series of firsts, NASA successfully launched the inaugural Vulcan Centaur rocket into low-Earth orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Center in Florida just after 2 a.m. EST Monday morning.
But, the second part of its main mission – the first US lunar landing in 50 years – is now in question after the Vulcan’s attached commercial moon lander, the Astrobotic Peregrine, failed to enter its correct orientation on its way to the moon.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for for 16 years," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said to applause in the launch control room as the Peregrine began its 46-day mission to the moon.
Hours later, once Peregrine was recorded entering a safe operational state, Astrobotic was forced to release a mission update:
"Unfortunately, an anomaly occurred, which prevented Astrobotic from achieving a stable sun-pointing orientation. The team is responding in real time as the situation unfolds," it said.
With engines made by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the powerful 200-foot-tall Vulcan Centaur rocket was developed by the private spacecraft engineering company United Launch Alliance (ULA), a decade-long joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Peregrine Lander, made by space robotics technology firm Astrobotic, was designed to “precisely and safely” deliver payloads, attached and/or deployed, to both the lunar orbit and the lunar surface.
Equipped with 20 payloads that will gather data about the lunar surface for future human missions, the Peregrine was set to land on the moon on February 23rd.
Technical anomaly hinders mission
On its second update, Astrobotic revealed the unstable sun-pointing orientation would threaten the ability of the golf cart sized Peregrine to soft land on the Moon.
Additionally, the team was worried about the spacecraft’s battery, which was reaching operationally low levels, eventually causing an communication black out with the control room.
By the third update, the team had re-established communications, was charging the battery, and managed to improvise and successfully reorient the Peregrine’s solar array towards the Sun.
“The Mission Anomaly Board continues to evaluate the data… we believe the root of the anomaly: a failure within the propulsion system,” it said.
The success was short-lived, as it was soon discovered the propulsion system was causing a critical loss of propellant and had switched gears to “assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time.”
"Space is hard," NASA simply pointed out. The US space agency posted several messages of support to the Astrobotic team on X.
“The team is working to try and stabilize this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture,” Astrobotic’s fourth update said.
Battery now fully charged and with the first picture in space from a mounted camera on the lander, the team said it was “using Peregrine’s existing power to perform as many payload and spacecraft operations as possible.”
The fifth update also asked for patience as incoming data is being re-examined as the majority of the “mission team has been awake and working diligently for more than 24 hours,” while more updates are expected.
An abandoned mission?
Meanwhile, as the team rushes to carry out scientific payloads from NASA, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Hungary, and Mexico, the fate of an alternate non-academic payload belonging to Celestis, a company known for promoting memorial spaceflights since the mid-1990s, is hanging in the balance.
The two-fold Celestis ‘Voyager’ space burial payload was designed to be part of the Vulcan flight in coordination with NASA and ULA, but is most likely now on hold because of the latest technical difficulties.
The first payload, known as the Celestis Tranquility flight, entails a space burial on the moon, while the second, aptly named the Enterprise flight, will catapult another load of human remains into permanent orbit around the sun.
Both payloads were attached to the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage.
In preparation for the Tranquility, The Peregrine lander had been outfitted with a ‘MoonBox’ containing dozens of memorial flight capsules containing the cremated ashes and DNA of more than 60 individuals.
Included in those capsules – are the remnants of sci-fi legend and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who passed in 2008, and his wife of nearly 22 years, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, also a cast member of the original series.
Other mementos in the DHL-sponsored MoonBox include over 100,000 memory images and 'Moon Stories' from the people of Earth, creative works by students from Balko public school in Oklahoma, and even a piece of Mt. Everest, according to Astrobotic.
The lunar box is intended to be placed on the Moon's northeastern quadrant in the Lacus Mortis basaltic plain, as a permanent tribute.
Once the Peregrine separates from the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage, the lander is expected to travel into a Trans-Lunar Insertion (TLI) orbit, where it will continue its journey to the Moon, according to Celestis.
The remaining Centaur upper stage, still carrying the Enterprise Flight, will be restarted for its journey beyond the Earth-Moon atmosphere into deep space.
The Enterprise flight contains close to two hundred capsules of cremated remains, including some DNA of people who are still living.
Not only are Gene and Marjel Roddenberry’s ashes on this flight as well, but so are the remains of several other beloved Star Trek cast members, as well as the DNA of their adult son, Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry.
The Enterprise trip includes James Doohan (DECD 2005), who played the beloved character "Scotty," Nichelle Nichol (DECD 2022), known as the USS Enterprise crew member Lt. Uhura, and DeForest Kelley (DECD 1999), the starship's Dr. Leanord McCoy. aka "Bones."
Majel Roddenberry, who died in 2008, was known for the reoccurring role as Nurse Christine Chapel, the voice of the Enterprise computer, and was often referred to as the first "The First Lady of 'Trek."
Hair follicles from past presidents George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F Kennedy are also on the flight, as well as NASA’s first woman astrogeologist, Mareta West, and astronaut L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.
Celestis said the Enterprise Flight will be renamed Enterprise Station once it establishes a stable solar orbit. becoming the first imprint of humanity to be part of the deeper cosmos.
While the Astrobotic team scrambles to perform as many scientific payloads as possible, the fate of the Enterprise mission is unclear, but it appears Tranquility will not reach its final lunar destination this time around.
ULA developed Vulcan to replace its staple Atlas V rocket and compete with Elon Musk's Space X reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
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