ULA’s Vulcan Debut Set for January As Year of Lunar Landers Begins

ULA’s Vulcan Debut Set for January As Year of Lunar Landers Begins

The United Launch Alliance was hoping to close out 2023 with the inaugural launch of the new Vulcan rocket, but it is not to be. The company confirmed today it now is targeting January 8, 2024 to literally “shoot for the Moon” with the launch of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, just one of several headed to the Moon in 2024.

Peregrine will land in a mare area near the Gruithuisen Domes and must arrive when the lighting conditions are suitable for the experiments it will deliver, one of the factors limiting when the launch can take place.

Astrobotic actually was ready to go in May, but Vulcan’s Centaur V upper stage experienced technical problems that took months to resolve. With all of that fixed, ULA brought the Vulcan-Centaur to the launch pad for a “Wet Dress Rehearsal” on December 8 where they fill the tanks with fuel and conduct a countdown as though they were going to launch, but stop just short of doing so.

At that point the launch was set for Christmas Eve with backup opportunities the next two days.

However, ground system equipment sprang leaks and ULA could not complete the test. On Sunday, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno posted on X he wanted to redo the WDR once the leaks were fixed and that meant the launch “likely” would be delayed to January.

The second WDR on December 12 went “great” he said in another post.

The launch now is set for January 8 at 2:18 am Eastern Standard Time and the launch window is slightly more generous this time — four days instead of three.

That is just four days before the launch of another lunar lander developed through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.  Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander is scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 on January 12.

Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines were two of the first three companies to win contracts from NASA in 2019 to launch commercial landers delivering small NASA science and technology payloads to the Moon. Under these Public-Private Partnerships, the companies must provide the landers and purchase launch services, finding other customers to close the business case. The CLPS missions support NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

Both were supposed to launch in 2021, but delays in developing the landers and in this case the rocket pushed them into 2024.

They are just the first of as many as six U.S. CLPS missions that will launch in 2024: two more from Intuitive Machines, one more from Astrobotic, and one from Firefly. More are planned for 2025 and 2026.

Source: NASA

The Moon has become an enticing destination for many countries and companies.

China has one operational lander/rover there now: Chang’e-4/Yutu-2. It’s the only lander ever to visit the Moon’s far side, which always points away from Earth. The spacecraft communicates with Earth via a relay satellite, Queqiao, in lunar orbit. An earlier pair, Chang’e-3/Yutu and the Chang’e-5 sample return mission landed on the near side.

Since 2019, an Israeli non-profit, a Japanese company, and the Indian and Russian governments have tried to land on the near side with mixed success. Except for Russia, they launched small, relatively inexpensive spacecraft that are solar powered and not designed to survive the lunar night, which is 14 Earth days long with no sunlight. All failed until August 2023 when the Indian government finally scored a success with Chandrayaan-3, its second attempt (Chandrayaan-2 failed in 2019).

In addition to the U.S. landers headed to the Moon in 2024, the Japanese government’s Small Lander to Investigate Moon (SLIM) is already enroute with landing set for January 19 Eastern Standard Time (January 20 in Japan). The Japanese company ispace, whose first lander crashed earlier this year, is getting ready to try again with the launch no earlier than the winter of 2024.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Peregrine would land near the lunar South Pole, but it will land near Gruithuisen Domes.  It is Astrobotic’s second mission that will land near the lunar south pole using their larger Griffin lander to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover.

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