More than 50 years after Apollo, despite progress, landing on the Moon remains a perilous exercise

2024-01-19 12:54:37

The American lunar lander experienced a fuel leak and was heading towards Earth, where it probably burned up in the atmosphere this Thursday. More than fifty years after the end of the Apollo program, sending a machine to land on the lunar surface remains an achievement.

It’s a fail. The Peregrine One mission was to mark the return of the Americans to lunar soil, fifty years after the Apollo program shutdown. Except that everything didn’t go as planned. Shortly after launch, the spacecraft, Peregrine, suffered a breakdown and it quickly became apparent that it would not be able to land smoothly on the lunar surface as initially planned, due to a fuel leak.

The American space company Astrobotic, which operates the mission, therefore diverted the craft so that it returned to Earth, where it probably disintegrated this Thursday, January 18 upon re-entering the atmosphere.

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Even today, reaching the Moon remains a feat. Because if it is once again a source of desire, this has not been the case for almost four decades. The moon landing of the Chinese Chang’e 3 mission in 2013 was the first attempt since 1976 and the Soviet Luna 24 mission. On the Moon, gravity is six times stronger than on Earth, but there is no ‘atmosphere. Unlike Mars, where spacecraft can fly to their destination and brake using parachutes, moon landings rely entirely on engines. A perilous exercise, and we must therefore expect new failures.

A slew of startups in the starting blocks

Besides, Astrobotic is not the first to break its teeth. In 2019, the Beresheet probe from the Israeli startup SpaceIL underwent a “engine failure” during the descent. As for the Hakuto-R moon lander from the Japanese company ispace, it crashed in 2023 after a “loss of communication” occurred a few minutes before he hit the ground. Even for space agencies, this remains a feat. The recent failure of the Russian Lune-25 mission bears witness to this. For their part, the Indians had to try twice before succeeding. Last August, the Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) succeeded in gently landing the Vikram lander during the Chandrayaan-3 mission, four years after suffering a crash.

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To date, only four nations have successfully landed on the moon, namely the United States, the Soviet Union, China and India. But maybe not for long. This Friday, January 19, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) is in turn attempting to land the Moon with their SLIM lander for the first time. If successful, Japan would then join this very exclusive club. In the United States, several startups are also on the launch pad, in the hope of becoming the first private organization to reach the Moon, with lucrative contracts with NASA as part of the new public partnership program. -private CLPS (for “Commercial Lunar Payload Services”).

The US Space Agency is seeking to reduce costs as much as possible by outsourcing the delivery of equipment to the moon to private companies, like the startup Astrobotic. The American space company Intuitive Machines plans to launch three missions to the Moon, the first of which is due to take off next February. Texan startup Firefly Aerospace will launch its moon lander, Blue Ghost, next spring. As for the startup Astrobotic, it will try its luck again next November, but with another ship, Griffin. At the end of the year, this will be the second attempt by the Japanese company ispace, with its Hakuto-R spacecraft.

Matthieu DELACHARLERY

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