After years of preparation, planning and patience, Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic Technology is finally set to go to the Moon.
Their “Peregrine” lander, filled with scientific instruments and other payloads from NASA and several other government agencies and non-government organizations and companies, will be part of the debut of the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur launcher. The earliest window, as announced on Twitter by Astrobotic, will be on May 4th, 2023.
Astrobotic and Peregrine
The lunar lander company, formed in 2007 by Carnegie Mellon University professor Red Whittaker in a bid to win the X-PRIZE for a private landing on the moon, has been promising affordable and attainable access to the lunar surface for both governmental and non-governmental clients. They plan to leverage the swiftly-falling cost of sending material into orbit to build a business taking payloads to the Moon, and have received significant support from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, including a US$79.5m contract in 2019 for the delivery of 14 payloads to the Moon.
The Peregrine lander itself is a small-class lander, which is preceding their medium-class Griffin lander that is still being prepared for a later mission on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. According to the Peregrine payload users guide, It’s 2.5m x 1.9m, has different configurations for polar and mid-latitude landings, can deliver payloads into several lunar orbits and lunar landing sites, and has five main engines from Dynetics as well as attitude control thrusters from Frontier Aerospace developed as part of the NASA TALOS program. It even has a WLAN network for the rovers.
Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said that the lander is “the culmination of countless hours over many years by hundreds of people to design and assemble the lander, to create the lunar delivery market, and to establish the facilities and supply chain needed to ensure the success of commercial space missions like Peregrine’s long into the future.”
It will be landing at the “Gruithuisen Domes,” on the northeast edge of the Oceanus Procellaraum. It was originally going to be landing at Lacus Mortis, but Astrobotic changed the location at NASA’s request, as NASA will be sending a future CLPS mission to the Domes in the future that it believes will be complemented by Peregrine’s payloads.
Astrobotic will be relying on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur as their launcher, thanks to a deal that goes back to 2017. Yet while the rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2021, delays with both the rocket and the lander led to the mission getting repeatedly pushed back, making its new confirmed date even more notable, even if it is only the first window.
ULA and Vulcan Centaur
ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. While these companies are critically important in the aerospace and defence sectors, issues with the rocket engines on their Atlas V rockets and delays on the debut of the Vulcan Centaur have caused them to fall behind SpaceX in the commercial and governmental launch space. This high-visibility Astrobotic lunar mission will be their big chance to regain their momentum in the face of the growth of not only SpaceX, but of other launcher companies like Rocket Lab and Firefly.
That said, the Vulcan Centaur itself is not completely untested. Replacing their “workhorse” Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, and built to meet the needs of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program, it includes a mix of newer and established parts, including some that date back to the mid-20th century. Its “Centaur V” upper stage is an evolution of the venerable “Centaur” upper stage that dates back to the 1960s, and includes upgraded versions of the RL10-C liquid hydrogen/oxygen rocket engine. Its 4 GEM-63XL solid rocket boosters are familiar technology as well.
Its lower stage, however, uses the all-new Blue Origin BE-4 engine, as the RD-180 engines that the Atlas V relied on were Russian-made, a situation which was made untenable after Russian annexed Crimea in 2014.
The methane-fueled BE-4, according to science writer and astrophysicist Andrew May, is a “hugely ambitious piece of engineering” and potentially “more powerful than the Space Shuttle’s main engines”. It but has proven extremely challenging, however, to ready the engines for actual launch. ULA CEO Tory Bruno said in 2020 that the delays were due to issues with the BE-4’s turbopumps, and that they’d been “sorted out”, but delays continued through 2022 due to “myriad factors” including the exacting standards of the US military, the COVID-19 pandemic, and issues regarding parts availability.
These issues appear to be sorted out, and the Vulcan Centaur’s twin BE-4 engines should be ready to go for the upcoming launch. In fact, the most recent delay in the Vulcan Centaur launch, from 2022 to 2023, was at the request of Astrobotic in order to finish the Peregrine.
The Vulcan Centaur will also be carrying two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellations.
According to the Peregrine Mission 1 manifest, the lander will include 28 payloads: 14 from NASA as part of their CLPS contract, and 14 from other governments and non-governmental clients.
From NASA, it will be carrying a variety of scientific instruments, including:
- Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS), measuring the lunar radiation environment;
- Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG), which will “characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface;
- Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSOLO), which will “identify low-molecular weight volatiles;
- Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), measuring “surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane” for potential in-situ resource utilization;
- Neutron Measurements At The Lunar Surface (NMLS), which will “use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface” and detect water and other rare elements;
- Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS), which will also be searching for water-ice near the lunar surface;
- Photovoltaic Investigation On The Lunar Surface (PILS), which will be validating solar cells that convert light to electricity;
- Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) For Lunar Surface Volatiles, which will also be looking for volatiles;
- Surface And Exosphere Alterations By Landers (SEAL), which is investigating the effects of landings on lunar regolith, and whether it might affect the composition of nearby samples;
- Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), which uses reflected laser light from Earth to precisely measure Peregrin’s location; and
- Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), which uses LiDAR to determine Peregrine’s exact velocity and position to land on the Moon.
The other payloads are a mix of the scientific and cultural.
- Agencia Espacial Mexicana is sending the first Latin American instrument to the Moon, the Colmena. The payload consists of five small robots which will be “catapulted onto the lunar surface”.
- Carnegie Mellon University is sending the Iris lunar rover, and is a subcontractor on Astrobotic’s own Moonranger lunar rover mission.
- The German Aerospace Centre is providing the German-built the M-42 radiation detector, which will “measure key radiation data on the flight to the Moon and on the lunar surface”.
- DHL’s “Mementos to the Moon” is adding “small personal mementos”, including “photographs and novels to student work and a piece of Mount Everest”.
- The UK’s Spacebit and Hungary’s Puli Space Technologies are sending plaques. The Puli plaque “contains archival imagery and texts”
- Elysium Space and Celestis are delivering symbolic portions of remains to the Moon.
- Japan’s Astroscale is sending the Lunar Dream Capsule, which includes “messages from children all over the world”.
- Carnegie Mellon University and the Arch Mission Foundation are sending the MoonArk and the Arch Libraries, respectively; the MoonArk is an “epochal collaborative space project”, while the Arch Libraries is a “curated, long-term archive” of human knowledge. Another copy of the Arch Library was already added to the test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, as reported in SpaceQ.
- Seychelles’ Bitmex will be adding a “unique physical coin” which is loaded with 1 Bitcoin.
- The UK’s Lunar Mission One will be providing “Footsteps on the Moon”, which includes “submissions of footprints from all over the world”.
- Astrobotic themselves will be demonstrating their “Terrain Relative Navigation” sensor, which will enable spacecraft to perform landings on planetary surfaces with an unparalleled accuracy of less than 100 meters. The sensor is being developed as part of a $10m NASA Tipping Point Contract with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Moog.
As readers can see from this extensive manifest, a lot is riding on the success of the Vulcan Centaur and the Peregrine lander.