First U.S. Lunar Lander in More than 50 Years On Its Way

First U.S. Lunar Lander in More than 50 Years On Its Way

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander is on its way to the Moon. Liftoff of the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan-Centaur rocket went perfectly early this morning. Built through a Public-Private Partnership with NASA, this is the first U.S. commercial lunar lander and the first U.S. lander since the Apollo program. Landing is scheduled for February 23.  Peregrine is just one of several landers already enroute or soon to launch this year. A Japanese lander and perhaps another U.S. commercial lander may get there first.

Today’s launch was the first of two “certification” flights, Cert-1, DOD requires before allowing ULA to use Vulcan-Centaur to launch their most valuable satellites. The rocket uses BE-4 engines from Blue Origin that use liquid methane (Liquified Natural Gas) and liquid oxygen — methalox — as propellant. Today was the first launch for Vulcan and the first launch of BE-4 engines. Everything went as planned with launch at 2:18 am ET.

The Centaur upper stage, powered by Aerojet Rocketdyne RL-10 engines, also performed nominally.  From a launch vehicle perspective, ULA’s 159th launch was a complete success, maintaining the company’s 100 percent mission success record for Atlas, Delta and now Vulcan.

The Peregrine spacecraft separated from Centaur about 50 minutes after liftoff following Centaur’s second burn. Astrobotic reported acquisition of signal from Peregrine at 3:18 am ET.

Centaur will continue into deep space and enter orbit around the Sun, while Peregrine is off to a landing on the Moon.  It’s taking a rather circuitous route and will land on February 23 at Sinus Viscositatis (Bay of Stickiness) next to Gruithuisen Domes.

Source: Astrobotic

In the next few years, NASA’s Artemis program will return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 left in 1972. To support the human landings, NASA created the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program to purchase services from commercial companies to deliver NASA science and technology payloads to the surface. The companies build and own the landers and procure launch services and are expected to find non-NASA companies to close the business case.  NASA is one of 17 customers on this mission, with 5 of the 20 payloads.

Source: Astrobotic

NASA awarded Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic a $79.5 million contract in 2019 to deliver 14 NASA payloads. The contract value has grown to $108 million and the number of NASA payloads reduced to 5 for a variety of reasons. Joel Kearns, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in the Science Mission Directorate, explained at a press conference on Friday that the funding increase was a mixture of equitable adjustments related to supply chain issues during COVID and a NASA-required change to where the spacecraft will land, and NASA agreed to remove some of its payloads because the Peregrine engine performance was less than expected.

Astrobotic’s website lists six NASA payloads, but NASA does not count the Navigation Doppler Lidar as a payload like the others. It is a NASA-provided navigation sensor that is part of the lander. The five science payloads are:

  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS)
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS)
  • Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMAS)
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS)
  • Laser Reflector Array (LRA)

Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines won the first CLPS contracts in 2019. At the time they anticipated launching in 2021, but both encountered delays. Astrobotic finally launched today and Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission is scheduled for mid-February on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Because of the different trajectories they’re using, IM-1 may get there first.

They are just the first of as many as six CLPS missions this year, but the United States is not the only country interested in landing on the Moon. In fact, the next lander to reach the lunar surface should be the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Small Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM). Launched in September, it is scheduled to land on January 19 EST (January 20 in Japan).

In addition to Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, Firefly and Draper have CLPS contracts with launches through 2026. NASA has no control over the non-NASA payloads on these missions. It is just one of many customers.

The era of commercial launches to the Moon is just beginning and creating some confusion. The Navajo Nation tried to postpone this launch because it carries human remains and they consider it sacrilegious to put them on the Moon. This happened once before and they said NASA agreed to consult with them before doing it again. They were not consulted this time, but it is not a NASA mission. The Biden Administration has agreed to meet with them.

That payload is from Celestis, a company that launches human remains and DNA into space. It also has a payload on Centaur. Those remains, including ashes from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel Barrett and other Star Trek icons, will orbit the Sun forever.


This article has been updated.

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