NASA Gears Up For First Private U.S. Lunar Lander Launch With Brand New Rocket

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Ahead of the launch of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander on Monday, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has transported its new Vulcan rocket to the pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Peregrine is the U.S.’s first privately developed lunar lander, and its launch is part of a broader global private corporate interest in commercially led lunar exploration. The Peregrine lunar lander will also mark the second time that a U.S. launch company has sent a private spacecraft to the lunar surface, and the mission will fly on ULA’s Vulcan rocket along with an upgraded Centaur upper stage.

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The upcoming ULA launch is a special one in the U.S. aerospace industry. It will mark the second time that a private company has sent a payload to the Moon and the first time that a privately developed heavy lift rocket will be used for the mission. The first firm to send a lunar lander on a special path that leverages the Earth’s gravity to accelerate a spacecraft to the Moon is SpaceX as part of its launch for the Japanese firm iSpace. Astrobtic’s Peregrine lunar lander will be the first time a U.S.-developed private lander spacecraft attempts a lunar foray.

On board the Peregrine will be several instruments belonging to and developed by space agencies and companies worldwide. These instruments will be met by lunar rovers as well, and should Peregrine successfully meet mission objectives for its landing, then NASA will have a treasure trove of data to work with for the Artemis program.

The Artemis program is a multi year effort to establish a working presence on the Moon. Launched by SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s SLS, the program aims to land the first humans on the Moon this decade since the Apollo program of the 1960s and 70s.

Another firm that will be watching the ULA launch with eagle eyes is Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. Blue Origin is developing its own heavy lift rocket, the New Glenn. Unlike the Vulcan first stage, the New Glenn’s first stage rocket booster is similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 through its landing profile and reusability objectives. Powering this booster are two BE-4 rocket engines capable of generating half a million pounds of thrust each.

Since the New Glenn is a reusable first stage rocket system, it uses seven of these engines, and a successful Vulcan flight will mean that Blue Origin can rest easy knowing that its engines can support a full flight profile for a lunar mission. Engine data will also come in handy for the launch of Blue’s own lunar lander under NASA’s Artemis program and planned low Earth orbit (LEO) internet satellite launches for Amazon’s subsidiary Kuiper.

The Peregrine lunar lander is set to blast off from the Cape Canaveral space station early in the morning on Monday at 2:18 a.m. Eastern time. After its launch on January 8th, the lunar lander will fly to the Moon and conduct several tests in orbit before attempting to land on February 25th, roughly a month and a half after its launch. A successful launch will enable ULA to demonstrate operational capability with the Vulcan and open up the market to its brand new rocket.

At 1.1 million pounds of thrust, it is a key competitor to SpaceX’s larger Falcon Heavy. While the Falcon Heavy can generate more thrust, the Vulcan Centaur V’s second stage is wider in diameter. The ULA has several development technologies that can use waste fuel to extend its lifespan in orbit to weeks.

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