Vulcan Ready to Send Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander to the Moon

Vulcan Ready to Send Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander to the Moon

The United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket is on the launch pad ready to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the Moon in about 9 hours. Not only is this the first launch of ULA’s new rocket, but Peregrine will be the first U.S. spacecraft to soft land on the Moon since the end of the Apollo program and the first U.S. commercial lander. A total of six Vulcan launches are planned this year so a lot is riding on success tonight, but hopes are high because ULA has a 100 percent mission success record for its current Atlas and Delta rockets.

Vulcan-Centaur is set to launch January 8 at 2:18 am ET.  Although this is a commercial launch for Astrobotic, NASA has a strong interest in the mission. Astrobotic built Peregrine through a Public-Private Partnership with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program and it carries five NASA science payloads and a NASA-provided navigation sensor.

ULA and NASA will livestream the launch beginning at 1:30 am ET. ULA posted an animated video showing what will happen at the time of launch as well as a viewing map for those in the southeastern U.S. who might be able to see it arc across the night sky.

During a press briefing on Friday, ULA Vice President for Government and Commercial Programs Gary Wentz said although Vulcan has a new name “it really is an upgraded Atlas V” except for new engines.

Atlas V is one of the rockets ULA has been launching since the company was formed in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It has a 100 percent mission success record. Atlas V and ULA’s Delta IV are being phased out and will be completely replaced by Vulcan over the next several years.

The big difference from Atlas V is that Vulcan uses new BE-4 engines built by Blue Origin instead of the Russian RD-180s that power Atlas V.

Congressional objections to the use of Russian engines to launch U.S. national security satellites after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 forced ULA to find a new engine supplier. It selected Blue Origin in 2014 to build a new type of engine using liquid methane (Liquified Natural Gas) and liquid oxygen — called methalox — as propellant instead of more traditional fuels like kerosene or liquid hydrogen. Two BE-4 engines are needed instead of one RD-180, but ULA President Tory Bruno said at the time that the BE-4 would offer the opportunity to “jump into the 21st century to get more performance at lower cost.”

Delays in engine development and other technical issues pushed this first launch until now, but customers have been lining up. ULA reports they have 70 orders already, six for launch this year including this one. Next is the first launch of Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for delivering cargo to the International Space Station under NASA’s commercial cargo program.

These first two launches, Peregrine and Dream Chaser, are the two certification flights DOD requires before allowing ULA to use Vulcan to launch their most valuable satellites. ULA calls them Cert-1 and Cert-2. Wentz said it will take about 60 days to review all the data from this first flight before moving forward with Cert-2, but that launch is also dependent on the ISS schedule and when Dream Chaser could dock there. He estimated it will be in the April time frame.

The other four Vulcan launches scheduled this year are for the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. Wentz said they will launch whichever NSSL spacecraft are ready.

The Vulcan’s Centaur V upper stage is a critical component of the rocket that can repeatedly restart its Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines. For this launch, the first burn is about 5 minutes into flight, then a coast until 43 minutes into flight to put Peregrine into Trans Lunar Injection (TLI). At that point Centaur V and Peregrine will separate and Centaur V will continue out into deep space, entering a heliocentric orbit. A third burn will take place at 1 hour 18 minutes into flight to gather data for future flights, Wentz said at a second press briefing on Friday.

Celestis, a company that sends DNA samples and cremated remains, “cremains,” into space has a package attached to the Centaur and the two will remain in heliocentric orbit indefinitely.

Celestis also is one of the customers on Peregrine, which has created a bit of a firestorm in recent days. Unlike the Centaur V, Peregrine will land on the Moon prompting objections from the Navajo Nation and other Indian tribes who consider the Moon sacred. They are blaming NASA and seeking to delay the launch, but there is no indication they will succeed. NASA has no control over what other customers place on the landers being built through CLPS by Astrobotic or other companies. The Biden Administration agreed to meet with them to discuss how to deal with this new era in which commercial companies, not NASA, are sending payloads to the Moon.

Astrobotic is a private company that built and owns the Peregrine lander. As part of the Public-Private Partnership with NASA, it is expected to find non-NASA customers to close the business case. Astrobotic found 16 other customers, including Celestis, with a total of 20 payloads. [The Astrobotic website lists 21, but one is the NASA-provided Navigation Doppler Lidar that is part of the spacecraft and NASA does not consider it a payload like the others.]

Customers on Astrobotic’s first Peregrine lunar lander mission. Credit: Astrobotic

Assuming all goes well with the launch, TLI, the trip to the Moon, and entering lunar orbit, Peregrine will descend and land on February 23.

Last minute glitches, especially with new rockets, are not uncommon. If the launch is delayed tonight, backup opportunities are available on January 9 (12:15 am ET), January 10 (12:12 am ET) and January 11 (12:14 am ET). Peregrine will land on February 23 no matter which of those days it is launched. Missions to the Moon can only launch at certain times of the month when the Earth and Moon are properly aligned, so if none of those dates work, they will have to wait a couple of weeks.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander encapsulated in the Vulcan payload fairing. Photo credit: ULA

Astrobotic President John Thornton said at a briefing on Friday he is “excited” about the mission and “hoping for the best, but we know the odds” in attempting a lunar landing.

Last year, India became the first country in recent years to successfully land on the Moon using a small lander with Chandrayaan-3, but that was its second try. Chandrayaan-2’s landing failed in 2019. Other failures were an Israeli non-profit in 2019, a Japanese commercial company last year, and the Russian government last year — its first attempt at a lunar landing since 1976 and using a traditional lander design.

Chandrayaan-3 was only designed to operate for one lunar day (14 Earth days) when sunlight was available. China is the only country this century to put traditional landers on the Moon equipped with power sources and rugged systems to endure the lunar environment for years. Chang’e-3 and its Yutu rover and Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are there now.

Although Astrobotic is getting all the attention today, Peregrine may not be the next lander on the Moon. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Small Lander to Investigate Moon (SLIM) in September and it is scheduled to land on January 19 Eastern Standard Time (January 20 in Japan).

Illustration of Japan’s SLIM lunar lander, scheduled to land on the Moon on January 19, 2024 EST (January 20 in Japan). Credit: JAXA

All of the landers from all those countries, companies and non-profits are robotic.

The United States is the only country to land people on the Moon — six Apollo crews between 1969 and 1972.

Several U.S. probes have orbited or deliberately crashed into the Moon since then, but none have landed. The CLPS program will change that. Astrobotic is just one of several CLPS contractors and two others plan to launch this year, Intuitive Machines and Firefly. Intuitive Machines’ first launch is scheduled for next month and because of the different trajectories used, IM-1 might get to the surface before Peregrine.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lander fully assembled. It will launch to the Moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9. Launch is currently planned for mid-February 2024.

As for human missions, NASA and its international and commercial partners are working hard to put the first humans back on the lunar surface at the end of 2025, although many are skeptical that date can be met. In any case, efforts are underway to achieve that goal in the next few years.

For now, the robotic landers and rovers have the surface all to themselves.

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