NEW ORLEANS — It was only two days ago when Peregrine, the inaugural private lander contracted under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, brilliantly blasted toward space aboard the first private flight of United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket.
Mere hours into the journey, Peregrine started to fail.
Astrobotic, the company behind the spacecraft, continues to provide updates on how Peregrine seems to be faring post-anomaly; the struggling craft even provided a photo for scientists to analyze while figuring out what to do. Honestly, things aren't looking great for the lander, and Astobotic has confirmed it won't be making a soft touchdown on the lunar surface.
However, the morning after Peregrine's downfall began, the ultimate purpose of CLPS seemed to shine through during astrophysicist Jack Burns' earnestly optimistic presentation at the American Astronomical Society's 243rd meeting. Though of course disappointed while looking back at the failure of the first official CLPS mission, Burns, a professor emeritus in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and in the Department of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, makes a point to simultaneously look forward to what will soon be the second mission. The attempt is scheduled for February, and Peregrine's setback isn't expected to change that.
"We saw the first launch yesterday of Astrobotic," Burns said during the presentation. "Unfortunately, it's had some propulsion problems and is leaking some fuel, so we're not sure it's going to be able to make it onto the surface. But, it's going to be followed next month by a second spacecraft: A lander built by the Intuitive Machines company."
That lander, dubbed Nova-C, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to shuttle six NASA payloads to the lunar surface — one of which Burns is involved with. It's called ROLSES, which stands for Radio Wave Observations on the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath, and it's absolutely fascinating. But beyond simply getting pumped for CLPS' next try and detailing the bright promise of ROLSES, Burns emphasized that this second go will actually demonstrate the key point of NASA's commercial endeavor. "It's not a one shot deal," he told Space.com.
The whole reason NASA started the CLPS program is because it wanted a cheaper, more efficient way to bring easier-to-replicate scientific payloads to space. "If, heaven forbid, the James Webb Space Telescope did not deploy, we really would be stuck," Burns said of the monumental $10 billion observatory currently locked into position on the side of Earth that never faces the sun. CLPS, meanwhile, offers a means of distributing risks and costs among many landers and missions. "The idea behind the CLPS program is for rapid acquisition and delivery of services," he said.
If private companies can supply a rocket and lander for the agency, NASA scientists can essentially be paying customers and toss on a few experiments. Non-NASA scientists can do so, too. And though the apparent failure of Peregrine has understandably called into question whether NASA's CLPS concept is a little undercooked, Burns further remarked that Astrobiotic's story doesn't end with Peregrine either. "They've got another shot," he said. "They've got multiple shots, and even another mission coming up in about a year."
Still, he says, "we're friends with all the folks working on Peregrine and Astrobotic and so we were there rooting for them to be successful. So, we're heartbroken."
What is ROLSES?
In short, Burns says the far side of the moon is the best spot from which to do radio astronomy — or as he puts it, "it's the only truly radio-quiet place in the inner solar system."
Like its name suggests, radio astronomy involves studying things happening in space through radio frequencies emitted by the sources of those things. So, naturally, you wouldn't want any non-source radio signals interfering with the delicate signals you're trying to zero-in on. And Earth causes some radio interference of its own. But if you place a radio telescope on the far side of the moon (the area of the lunar surface always hidden to our planet), any radio interference emanating from Earth would get blocked out by the moon's thousands of miles of rock itself.
The moon also lacks a significant ionosphere, or atmospheric layer where lots of zippy particles hang out and risk radio interference. Earth's ionosphere is full of those particles.
"The other part that maybe isn't appreciated as well," Burns said, "is the radio beams for these instruments couple electromagnetically with the subsurface conditions that happen on the Earth, and happen on the moon." This is problematic on Earth because soil moisture, for example, can change what's known as the "dielectric constant," or the ability of an insulating material to store electrical energy, from one day to the next. "That's not true on the moon," Burns said. "It's stable and very dry."
Alas, radio astronomy on the moon (particularly the far side), he argues, is a terrific idea. And he's not alone. Several scientists throughout the Jan. 9 portion of the meeting brought blueprints for their ideas on how to start building science observatories on our beloved celestial companion. Ethicists and policymakers are considering how to manage such a future as well.
Specifically, ROLSES will actually be targeting a landing site near the moon's south pole region in a small crater that's only about 10 degrees from the actual southern pole. "This will be the closest anyone has gotten to the south pole," Burns said. "The Indian Space Agency landed there with Chandrayaan-3 about 30 degrees away, so we're just creeping in towards the south pole.
"It's not quite the pristine radio-quiet environment, but it's a good place for us to start making operations from the moon."
In terms of the far side, the team says they'll certainly be getting there eventually. A mission named "LuSEE-Night" will travel to the neutral, pockmarked spot on the lunar surface (yes, it looks nothing like the grayscale watercolor side we can see from our planet) someday. That day could come as soon as 2026 if all goes to plan, when LuSee-Night is scheduled to launch aboard Firefly Aerospace's forthcoming "Blue Ghost" lander.
"The 'at night' comes from the fact that we're gonna need 40 kilograms [88 lbs] of batteries. We'll be able to not only survive, but actually operate at night on the moon." This bit is quite interesting as moon rovers and landers are known to die during long, frosty lunar nights. India's Chandrayaan-3 components, for instance, amazingly landed near the moon's south pole last year but sadly did not wake up after the frigid stretch. Space enthusiasts everywhere were crushed, even though it was a bit of a pipe dream to believe they'd survive.
The future of lunar radio astronomy
"The CLPS program is intended to be a high-risk high-reward program. We see some of the risk already with Astrobotic," Burns said. "With the ROLSES payload, the thing that's nice about this is we'll be landing two to three of these payloads per year."
To that end, NASA has already approved the flight of an upgraded version of ROLSES for 2026. For now, "we have a total of 2.5 meter monopole telescopes that we will be operating and we have two bands — a low band and a high band — and ranges all the way to 10 kilohertz for plasma observations up to 30 megahertz for astrophysical observations," Burns said. Measuring at those frequencies from the spot in which the contraption will land would mark a first on that front. ROLSES will also be doing things like studying the density of the photoelectron sheath on the moon, associated with photoemissions from the lunar regolith (pretty much moon dirt) that seem to pile up. Hopefully, that'll help scientists know what astronauts headed to the lunar surface may experience in the offworld environment.
One of the payloads accompanying ROLSES on Nova-C is also actually a pair of CubeSats that'll be ejected during the lander's descent, will turn back around and take images of the lander going towards the surface. "That will be seriously cool," Burns said. "That will give us a view of the lander coming down on the surface for the first time."
Early on during the presentation (ironically around when my phone started buzzing with Peregrine failure updates) Burns pulled up a video of the iconic Arthur C. Clarke. It was a snippet of an interview in which Clarke discusses — believe it or not — radio astronomy on the moon.
"Particularly on the far side of the moon, shielded from the electronic racket of the earth by 2000 miles of rock, there is an ideal site for radio astronomy telescopes," Clarke says in the black and white footage, "and I think that in a few generations, almost all serious astronomy will be conducted either on the moon or in space."
"It's now been a few generations," Burns said immediately after the clip ended.
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Monisha Ravisetti is Space.com's Astronomy Editor. She covers black holes, star explosions, gravitational waves, exoplanet discoveries and other enigmas hidden across the fabric of space and time. Previously, she was a science writer at CNET, and before that, reported for The Academic Times. Prior to becoming a writer, she was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. She spends too much time playing online chess. Her favorite planet is Earth.