Peregrine bows out with a bang as SLIM aims for Moon's rocky runway

Japanese lunar lander to attempt a soft touchdown

As the Astrobotic Peregrine spacecraft prepares for its final descent into the Earth's atmosphere, another lunar mission, the Japanese Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM), is gearing up for a soft landing on the Moon's surface.

For Peregrine Mission One, the spacecraft's demise will bring an end to the operation, which began atop the first flight of the Vulcan Centaur. While everything appeared to go well for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket, the Peregrine Lunar Lander experienced a propellant leak that ruled out any possibility of landing on the Moon.

Instead, managers elected to allow the spacecraft to return to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere for fear of generating debris and risking a collision with other spacecraft.

Due to the propulsion anomaly, engineers opted to perform a series of very short burns spaced out to avoid overheating. The spacecraft's attitude was also adjusted so that the force of the leak would nudge it toward the South Pacific Ocean.

As it stands, the team expects the spacecraft to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at 2100 UTC on January 18.

The demise of Peregrine marks the start of the next soft landing attempt on the Moon by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) SLIM, which was inserted into lunar orbit on December 25.

The landing descent for SLIM is expected to commence at approximately 1500 UTC on January 19 with touchdown 20 minutes later.

The landing is ambitious. Rather than aiming for somewhere flat, SLIM is heading for a slope of approximately 15 degrees. A two-step landing technique is planned, where the main landing gear touches down first, followed by a forward rotation to stabilize the lander.

The approach is justified as follows: "As science and exploration objectives become more sophisticated, landing on such sloping area will be increasingly required in the future."

SLIM has two primary objectives. First, perform a landing on the Moon in a precise location. Second, demonstrate the probe system works as promised.

Once it has landed, scientists hope that the probe will be able to analyze the surrounding rocks as part of research into the origin of the Moon. Scientists have a very specific location in mind – near the "Sea of Nectar" – for the landing, which is why they require pinpoint accuracy.

Engineers hope that once safely landed, SLIM will be able to operate until the lunar sunset. ®

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