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Peregrine lander: one glitch won’t keep private enterprise off the moon

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Jan 15, 2024, 1:55:38 PMJan 15

The Observer view on the Peregrine lander: one glitch won’t keep private
enterprise off the moon
Observer editorial
The delay to Nasa’s 10-year lunar programme gives us time to beef up the
treaties governing the exploitation of extraterrestrial resources

Sun 14 Jan 2024 01.30 EST
It has been a grim time for lunar exploration. Scientists and space
engineers had earmarked 2024 as the year that humanity would begin its
return to the moon in earnest. An ambitious programme – largely funded
through Nasa’s $2.6bn commercial lunar payload services (CLPS)
initiative – was drawn up. Its forerunner projects included the launch
of the robot lander, Peregrine, last week – to be followed by a crewed
mission, Artemis II, that would put four people into orbit round the
moon in September. These missions would form the vanguard for a schedule
of further projects, both robot and crewed, that would lead to the
construction of a lunar colony some time in the next decade.

These pioneering aspirations have not had an auspicious start, however.
Shortly after its launch on Monday, mission controllers revealed that
Peregrine – despite a flawless launch – had suffered a critical loss of
propellant and would fail to make a landing on the moon. Then came the
news that Nasa had decided to postpone its Artemis II mission for a year
“for safety reasons”.

A year that was expected to herald a breakthrough in lunar exploration
is already looking tarnished, with its setbacks triggering accusations
that space engineers no longer have the will or ability to return to the
moon. We had many successful lunar landings last century, after all. Why
can’t achieve we them today, asked critics. Is the right stuff missing?

Such censure is unfair, however. Nasa has taken a very different path
from the one it followed during the heady days of the Apollo missions.
This time it has put far more onus on private enterprise. Peregrine, for
example, was built and launched by commercial companies – in contrast to
the entirely tax-funded moon missions of the 60s and 70s.

From this perspective, private industry – albeit with some Nasa support
– is expected to take most of the risks and so reap most of the
benefits. And although the loss of Peregrine was a major mishap,
observers say that companies should quickly acquire the expertise that
will bring future missions to successful conclusions. They point to Elon
Musk’s SpaceX rocket launch programme as an ideal example of how
commerce can move into the market for space ventures.

There is a danger that a completely unrestricted rush to exploit the
moon could have unwelcome consequences
In opening up the moon to commercial exploitation, it is right that
enterprises that take risks there also get the benefits – though there
is also a danger that a completely unrestricted rush to exploit the moon
could have unwelcome consequences.

The lunar surface features several sites that are ideal for carrying out
key scientific research, including gravitational wave investigations and
black hole observations. Many lie in areas where, it is believed, there
could be precious sources of water and minerals. Companies constructing
colonies are likely to home in on these sites and ruin their unique
scientific potential, astronomers will warn UN officials later this month.

A working group set up by the International Astronomical Union will seek
a strengthening of international treaties that cover the exploitation of
extraterrestrial resources.

Such negotiations are likely to be protracted but are crucial if
humanity is to avoid destroying sites that are unique to the moon and

Despite last week’s setbacks, the lunar exploitation programme will
proceed, and great care will be required in controlling how it proceeds
over the coming decade.

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