Featured image: NASA/ESA/ATG Medialab
From science to the space industry to geopolitics, the first month of the year 2024 was dominated by the news about the missions to the Moon. Two robotic missions headed for lunar landings during January 2024, with one ending up as a failure and the second as a ‘minimum’ success.
On January 9, the US space agency NASA announced the likely delay in their first crewed missions to the Moon. Now, under their Artemis program, a flyby mission is likely to happen around September 2025 and an attempted human landing on the Moon around September 2026.
More than fifty years ago, between 1969 and 1972, NASA had great success with the Apollo program and twelve men walked on the surface of the Moon during this period.
Only one of NASA’s missions, Apollo 13, failed to land on the Moon, but in history this mission is known as a ‘successful failure’. NASA was able to get the astronauts of Apollo 13 back to the Earth in one of the most complex recoveries ever undertaken.
Apollo 13 also set the record for the farthest flight from the Earth, having reached 401,056 km from here (the distance of the Moon from the Earth is 384,400 km).
Unfortunately, despite such an illustrious past, states and private agencies today are found struggling to undertake even robotic missions to the Moon.
For any scientific experiment, experiencing failure is not new and is always known as an important part of the learning process. The same is the case in the space domain too.
However, when it comes to missions to the Moon, it has been observed that almost 50% of missions have failed. This is what worries the various space agencies in the world that are keen to reach the Moon.
On January 8, 2024, a commercial spacecraft from the US made a bid to become the first private player to land on the Moon. Astrobotic Technology’s probe, the Peregrine lunar lander, was launched in partnership with NASA for landing on the Moon on February 23, 2024.
However, after the spacecraft made it off the Earth and into deep space, its propellant started to leak and it got out of control. Some attempts were made to keep the mission under control, but it was soon realised that it wouldn’t achieve its aim.
Finally, the probe was made to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in order to avoid the creation of space debris. It looks like the spacecraft entered the atmosphere and burned somewhere over the South Pacific.
After 10 days in space, the @Astrobotic Peregrine lander made a controlled re-entry over the Pacific on Jan. 18.
— NASA (@NASA) January 19, 2024
Peregrine is the first of many Moon missions planned as partnerships between NASA and the US aerospace industry under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Presently, NASA is keen to engage with private players to undertake missions to the Moon. This allows NASA to concentrate more on investing in science without spending much time, resources and money towards developing platforms to reach and operate on the Moon’s surface.
With the CLPS, NASA is just required to buy rides for their scientific equipment.
There were five NASA research payloads aboard Peregrine. NASA had invested around US$108 million towards the development of the lander.
In contrast, Japan’s success is noteworthy. On January 20, 2024, it became only the fifth nation to successfully complete a soft landing on the Moon’s surface. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) did a perfect touchdown.
This was a very crucial landing from the point of view of navigation. The SLIM lander has landed on a site that stretches just 100 meters across. This spacecraft is nicknamed the ‘Moon Sniper’ for its precision technology.
This site is near a small lunar impact crater called Shioli. This area is assumed to be formed by ancient volcanic activity. The SLIM mission is expected to help towards examining the composition of rocks in this area, which could reveal some secrets about the origins of the Moon.
The mission has two rovers to do this job and they are also believed to be operational. Unfortunately, there are some issues with the mission’s solar antennae and now SLIM is not getting any power. A battery source initially provided it power after landing.
In short, Japan has been able to achieve a perfect soft-landing of its craft on the lunar surface. However, the scientific aim of its mission will remain unfulfilled.
During April 2019, Beresheet, a small robotic lunar lander and lunar probe operated by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, failed to carry out a successful soft-landing on the lunar surface.
Four years later, during April 2023, a landing attempt made by the private Japanese agency ispace also failed. Communication with the lander of the Hakuto-R mission was lost during the final seconds of its descent, leading to a hard-landing.
Now, along with the Peregrine mission’s failure during January 2024, it could be seen that all the three private missions to the Moon have failed.
It needs to be noted that on August 11, 2023, Russia’s Luna-25 mission also failed. However, there is still a need to examine why private missions are failing.
On January 17, 2024, Michael Griffin, who led NASA from 2005 to 2009, testified to a US House of Representatives subcommittee. He has argued that current projections under the Artemis program to have humans on the surface of the Moon by September 2026 are totally unrealistic.
Griffin has come down heavily on agencies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. He feels that the financial projections done by these agencies are grossly unrealistic. With very low-price projections, these agencies could be required to make a lot of compromises, which could have an adverse impact mainly on aspects of crew safety. He has challenged the US government’s approach of leveraging so-called ‘commercial space’ for national purposes.
It needs to be noted that during the fiscal year 2023, NASA received around $25 billion, but during the Apollo Space Program in the early 1960s, the US government spent close to $49 billion on the project!
Today, major private players like, say, SpaceX, have earned a good reputation based on their track record. This agency is able to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). It has already launched more than 5,000 satellites to the Low Earth Orbit as a part of its Starlink internet constellation.
But the first two missions of its uncrewed spacecraft Starship, which is eventually expected to carry astronauts to the Moon and beyond, have failed. Other major agencies are also not doing splendidly with their projects. For instance, Boeing’s Starliner – meant to carry humans to the ISS – and its test flights have been delayed.
All this raises a very valid question: how much should states depend on the private sector, particularly when it comes to missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond?
There are various challenges for undertaking such missions. For example, the Moon has one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity, but there is no atmosphere to slow the speed of a craft. Locating the exact landing zone is challenging since there are no space-based navigational aids available. Basically, from engines to fuel to sensors, there are a lot of challenges.
Over the last few decades, NASA has increased its dependence on the private industry, but the issue is, will the private sector deliver in the next two or three years, when NASA will want to reach the Moon again?
Some recent examples show that even with technologically developed states like Israel and Japan, the private industry is not experiencing success with missions such as Moon landings. There could be various technical and financial reasons behind this.
Today, unfortunately, the US is getting embroiled in the same old Cold War era-game of technological one-upmanship. It is obvious that they want the US citizen to reach the Moon before the Chinese citizen, and that they are fully aware that China is systematically progressing in that direction and could even beat them.
All in all, this indicates that many states and private players could have ambitions to reach the Moon. However, this is not an easy task.
Interestingly, all this brightens the success of India’s Chandrayaan-3 further.
Ajey Lele researches space issues and is the author of the book Institutions That Shaped Modern India: ISRO.