Updated Jan 8, 2024 - Science

First U.S. moon lander in decades suffers "critical" fuel loss upon launch

, United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan Centaur lifting from a launchpad Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, on Jan. 8.

United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan Centaur lifting from a launchpad Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, on Jan. 8. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

A new rocket developed by the United Launch Alliance deployed the first lunar lander from the U.S. in decades, on Monday, but the spacecraft suffered a "critical" fuel loss hours into its flight.

Why it matters: The rocket was carrying Astrobotic Technology's Peregrine lander, which is set to be the first commercial lander to touch down on the moon — and may install a cemetery on the lunar surface.

  • If Peregrine successfully lands next month, it would also be the first American lander on the moon since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

How it works: United Launch Alliance's new Vulcan Centaur rocket launched from Florida's Canaveral Space Force Station 2:18am ET Monday before performing a burn to escape the planet's orbit.

Of note: Hours after the launch, Astrobotic announced that Peregrine had experienced a propulsion issue that had prevented it from orienting itself towards the sun and that the issue put at risk the spacecraft's ability to land on the moon.

  • In a subsequent update, Astrobotic said the propulsion issue had caused the Pelegrine to experience "critical loss of propellant."
  • "We are currently assessing what alternative mission profiles may be feasible at this time," the company added.
  • The company may not attempt to land Pelegrine on the moon as planned, per CNN.

Yes, but: Putting human remains on the moon has been strongly opposed by the Navajo Nation, the largest group of Native Americans in the U.S., which contends that doing so would be "an act of desecration" against Indigenous cultures that regard the moon as sacred, Axios' Russell Contreras reports.

  • The lunar memorials weren't sanctioned by NASA, as it lacks oversight on payloads that are included in commercial flights as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
  • The tribe's concerns were dismissed by Celestis CEO and co-founder Charles M. Chafer, who told USA Today that no individual religion should be able to influence whether space missions go forward.

Between the lines: The human remains aboard the lander won't be the first on the moon, as ashes of Gene Shoemaker, the founder of astrogeology, were buried on the moon in the late 1990s by the Lunar Prospector.

The big picture: Celestis has given its payload aboard Peregrine the mission name of "Luna Tranquility."

  • Tranquility includes 66 mission "participants," whose ashes will remain permanently on the moon's surface after being delivered to its Lacus Mortis region.

Meanwhile, Celestis has another mission aboard the rocket, though not included in Peregrine and not destined for the moon.

  • Called the Enterprise Flight, it contains capsules containing human remains as well as DNA samples from over 200 people, including the DNA of former presidents such as George Washington, John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • The remains from the creator and several cast members of the original Star Trek television series were also included on Enterprise, which is set for interplanetary deep space.
  • Celestis says the purpose of Enterprise is in part to establish "the world's first true outpost of humanity in the cosmos."
  • The details of Elysium Space's payload were not released.

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Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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