Failed Peregrine lunar lander carrying human remains will crash into Earth by Thursday (Jan. 18)

An image showing a disturbance to the Peregrine's Multi-Layer Insulation, the first visual clue pointing to a problem with the propulsion system.
The first photo snapped by Astrobotic's Peregrine moon lander in space, shared via X on Jan. 8, 2024. (Image credit: Astrobotic Technology)

The controversial Peregrine lunar lander, which swiftly failed in its mission to reach the moon after launching last week, will be deliberately crashed into Earth's atmosphere by Thursday (Jan. 18). The doomed spacecraft will most likely burn up in our planet's upper atmosphere without reaching the planet’s surface.

The Peregrine lander was created by the private Pittsburgh-based space company Astrobotic Technology and launched into space on board United Launch Alliances' brand-new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Jan. 8.

Once in space, the lander was supposed to follow a complex orbital trajectory that would slingshot it toward the moon, where it was scheduled to land in late February. If all went to plan, Peregrine would have become the first commercial lander on the moon and the first U.S. spacecraft to reach the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

The mission was strongly condemned by the Navajo Nation before launch because the lander was carrying payloads from memorial spaceflight companies that contained human remains and DNA. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren wrote in an open letter to NASA that landing human remains on the moon was "tantamount to desecration of this sacred space."

Around six hours after launch, Astrobotic announced that the lander, which had successfully separated from the rocket, had encountered several anomalies, which included a critical propellant leak that essentially left the spacecraft dead in the water (or space). After searching for solutions, the company later admitted that the lander would never reach the lunar surface.

Related: 15 of the weirdest things we have launched into space

The Peregrine lander was onboard ULA's brand new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which launched from Florida on Jan. 8. (Image credit: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

On Saturday (Jan. 13), Astrobotic wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter) that the lander is on a collision course with Earth. Subsequent tests revealed that the spacecraft could still be maneuvered slightly, meaning this fate could be avoided. However, after consulting with NASA and the U.S. government, Astrobotic announced on Sunday (Jan. 14) that they would allow Peregrine to crash into Earth's upper atmosphere.

Astrobotic has not revealed exactly when or where the lander will enter Earth's atmosphere but noted the mission will be finished by Thursday. 

"We do not believe Peregrine’s re-entry poses safety risks, and the spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere," Astrobotic representatives wrote in the statement. In the past, parts of other doomed spacecraft such as defunct return capsules and uncontrollable falling rocket boosters have been known to reach and collide with Earth's surface. 

Astrobotic decided to crash the lander to prevent leaving highly disruptive space junk in cislunar space — the space between Earth and the moon's orbit. 

However, the lander's death spiral could still cause some environmental issues. In October last year, scientists revealed that space junk burning up in Earth's atmosphere was causing high levels of metal pollution that are impacting our skies in ways we don't fully understand

Despite the total and almost immediate failure of the Peregrine's trip to the moon, Astrobotic still considers the mission to be a success, partly because equipment on the lander was still able to collect some data from Earth orbit but mainly because it will help the company avoid similar mistakes in the future.

"This mission has already taught us so much and has given me great confidence that our next mission to the moon will achieve a soft landing [on the moon]," Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said in the statement.

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.