May 20, 2024
This spectrometer was set to be the first-ever European tech on the moon. But it might never get there



A US rocket carrying the first ever European-built tech set to land on the moon successfully launched in the early hours of Monday morning.

Known as an Exospheric Mass Spectrometer (EMS), the tech is a crucial component of the Peregrine Lunar Lander. Yesterday, the lander was propelled into space aboard a Vulcan rocket from Cape Canaveral space station.

The EMS will explore the Moon’s atmosphere, by measuring water and other molecules, unlocking the mysteries of its water cycle. British scientists at The Open University and RAL Space, the UK’s national space lab, developed the sensor with £14mn in funding from the European Space Agency (ESA).

Years in the making, the EMS is part of a larger scientific instrument jointly developed by NASA and ESA, known as the Peregrine Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS). PITMS will “sniff out” lunar gases, providing valuable insights into lunar composition and conditions.

NASA expects PITMS will contribute to our understanding of the moon’s potential to provide resources like water, opening new possibilities for future human presence on the lunar surface.

The ESA has hailed the launch as a historic milestone for Europe’s space sector. “As the first ESA payload destined to land on the lunar surface, the EMS is a groundbreaking instrument for ESA, both as a technology demonstrator and for lunar science,” said project manager Roland Trautner.

The Peregrine lander is set to spend time orbiting Earth and then the Moon, before beginning its descent and historic lunar landing, expected to be around mid-February.

But just hours after the launch yesterday, Astrobotic Technology, the US company that built the lander, reported it had experienced a “critical loss of propellant.” The spacecraft has failed to point properly towards the sun, which meant that its solar-powered batteries were not charging.

“The team is working to try and stabilise this loss, but given the situation, we have prioritised maximizing the science and data we can capture. We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time,” the company wrote.

Peregrine’s chances of reaching the moon are looking rather bleak at this point, in what is undoubtedly devastating news for the scientists and engineers who have worked on the project for several years. It is also a major blow for Astrobotic Technology, who had high hopes of becoming the first-ever private company to land on the moon.

If previous mission failures are anything to go by, the chances of a take-two is unlikely anytime soon. For now, the Peregrine lander and its instruments are likely to become part of the ever-growing pile of space junk.





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