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Engine fails, stops moon landing of craft criticized by Navajo for carrying human remains

NASA’s privately built Peregrine lander, which carries a cargo of human remains that drew criticism from the president of the Navajo Nation, is now unable to land on the moon’s surface.

A failure in Peregrine’s propulsion system depleted its propellant and sent it tumbling just hours after a flawless debut blastoff of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket carried the lander to space, 

Astrobotic, who built the lander under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, will devote remaining resources to reducing the tumble and aligning Peregrine’s panels to harvest solar power.

Lacking the means for a soft landing, the team will focus on getting as close to the moon as possible and allot its remaining mission time to testing and data-gathering.

Expected failures

Barring a crash, that means its client cargo of human remains will not reach the lunar surface.

NASA, which intended the lander’s instruments to help prepare the way for its Artemis program to return humans to the moon, indicated that failures are an expected part of taking many “shots on goal” with lower-cost, higher-risk public-private partnerships.

This marks the third in a series of failed privately-build lunar craft, preceded in 2019 by Beresheet, which was built by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, and last year by a lander from the private Japanese firm Ispace.

Astrobotic, SpaceIL and Ispace all began as teams that pursued the Google Lunar X Prize, which ended in 2018 without any competitors reaching space.

Next mission in February

NASA will continue with its CLPS missions. The next lander, slated for a mid-February launch, is being built by Intuitive Machines of Houston and will target a region near the moon’s south pole.

Coincidentally, the lunar south pole is home to the only human cremains currently on the moon — those of Flagstaff planetary scientist Gene Shoemaker, which reached the region during a planned crash of NASA’s 1998 Lunar Prospector mission.

The agency also has a contract with Astrobotic for a second mission later this year, but that could change or at least face review.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk from 2016 to 2024.