Why it’s getting harder to land on the moon now than it was fifty years ago

It launched without a hitch. The Peregrine spacecraft was set free on the ideal course for its historic journey to the moon when the Vulcan Centaur rocket, which had shed its solid rocket boosters, shook into the darkness above Cape Canaveral early on Monday morning.

Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, the company that manufactured the rocket, exclaimed with delight upon learning of the success—this was, after all, the Vulcan’s first flight. But the atmosphere quickly changed. The company that built Peregrine, Astrobotic, discovered that fuel was seeping from the spaceship. Furthermore, there was no longer any hope of a soft landing on the moon if there was not enough fuel.

It is more than half a century since Nasa landed astronauts on the moon and returned them all home safely. Today, shouldn’t the landing on the moon be, if not completely simple, then at least easy? Isn’t the fundamental knowledge of the twenty-first century now the rocket science of the mid-20th century?

It’s not just Peregrine that has failed recently. China and India have both sent robotic landers to the moon, but last year, almost 60 years after the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 made the first soft landing, Russia’s Luna 25 crashed. Private company-built landers have a perfect record of failure on the moon: iSpace’s Japanese lander failed last year, and the Israeli Beresheet lander crashed in 2019. Peregrine completes a trio of three losses.

Jan Wörner, a former director general of the European Space Agency (Esa), claims that weight is one major obstacle. Because you have to be light in order for the spacecraft to fly, you are continually on the verge of failure. A significant safety margin is not possible.

Furthermore, practically all spacecraft are prototypes. Spacecraft are custom-built devices, with the exception of a few uncommon instances like the Galileo communications satellites. They are not manufactured in large quantities using the same tried-and-true designs and systems. Furthermore, they are left alone once they are put into orbit. “If you have trouble with your car, you can have it repaired, but in space there’s no opportunity,” Wörner explains. “A different dimension is space.”

The moon itself has its own set of issues. There is no atmosphere, but there is gravity—one-sixth that of Earth. Moon landings rely solely on engines, in contrast to Mars, where spacecraft can fly to their destination and brake using parachutes. Smaller probes often have a single engine, therefore in order to regulate the descent, it needs to be steerable.

The engine’s need for a throttle to adjust the thrust further complicates problems. “Usually you ignite them and they provide a steady state thrust,” says Nico Dettmann, head of Esa’s lunar exploration group. “To change the thrust during operations adds a lot more complexity.”

Even so, it can be difficult to understand why the moon is still such a difficult destination given that the first lunar landings occurred in the 1960s.

A astounding $25 billion was spent by NASA on Apollo during the space race. Even yet, it experienced numerous setbacks prior to arriving to the moon. It now possesses seven decades of institutional expertise and a culture focused on spacecraft design, construction, and testing. However, the agency is hoping to cut costs and boost the US space sector by paying private companies, including Astrobotic and Houston-based Intuitive Machines, to send its sensors to the moon under its new Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

There is a higher chance of failure as a trade-off, therefore more lost missions are to be anticipated. “These companies are all relatively new. And comparatively, they are doing these missions on pocket change,” according to Dr. Joshua Rasera, an Imperial College London research associate. However, he asserts that the tactic ought to succeed because businesses grow from their mistakes. He states “It still ends up being cheaper over the total number of missions,” “even if the first few maybe crash.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *