ULA’s Vulcan Rocket launches Private US Moon Landing Mission, 1st since the Last Apollo Mission in 1972

After the last Apollo 17 lunar lander left the surface of the moon in 1972, no other US moon landing mission has made it to the lunar surface. However, Americans commenced their return to the lunar surface today. United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur just launched on its first-ever flight named Cert-1, early this morning (Jan. 8), from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Vulcan took off from its launch pad at 2:18 a.m. EST (0718 GMT), when its two solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and two Blue Origin-built BE-4 first-stage engines ignited and blasted the vehicle skyward with approximately 2 million pounds of thrust. Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander was being carried atop the rocket as it ascended toward space this morning.

The moon lander carried 20 different customer payloads including five NASA science instruments. It will use these instruments to conduct numerous experiments on the lunar surface.

How ULA’s Vulcan Rocket Launches Private US Moon Landing mission

At exactly 2:18 a.m. EST (0718 GMT) on January 8, the ULA’s Vulcan rocket standing 202-foot-tall (62 meters) ignited and rose above its launch tower as it vanished into the dark sky over Florida. At about two minutes after liftoff, the SRBs safely separated from Vulcan’s first-stage booster and continued to ascent through Earth’s atmosphere.

Five minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s first stage turned off its engines and separated from the Centaur upper stage, which ignited the first of three burns after a 15-second coast phase. Centaur’s first burn after separation stayed active for about 30 seconds.

30 minutes after the first burn, it initiated a four-minute translunar injection burn. At about 50.5 minutes after liftoff, the rocket’s primary payload, named Peregrine was released to continue the journey towards the moon.

“Yeehaw! I am so thrilled, I can’t tell you how much,” ULA president and CEO Tory Bruno said just after Peregrine deployed successfully. “So far, this has been an absolutely beautiful mission back to the moon.”

When Peregrine successfully lands on the moon on February 23 just as planned, it will become the first American spacecraft to make it to the lunar surface since Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972. Peregrine would also be the first private mission to ever reach the moon.

While Peregrine is anticipated to land on the moon next month, Intuitive Machines, another company is looking forward to entering the modern moon race and landing on the moon before Peregrine.

The Houston-based Intuitive Machines anticipate launching a mission to the moon named Intuitive Machine’s lander, Nova-C. It will be launching in a few weeks from now. However, Nova-C may likely land on the moon a day earlier than Peregrine.

Why Peregrine Mission Is Important for NASA

Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander before payload fairing encapsulation. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

Peregrine’s mission to the moon is extremely important as it is carrying five of its first modern instruments to the moon. These five scientific payloads are aboard the lunar lander. NASA gave out the contract under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiatives. Peregrine will provide the program’s first service objective.

NASA’s five science payloads aboard Peregrine will help the space agency study the lunar environment after the lander safely lands on the lunar surface. The Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) is one of these instruments and it will use mirrors and lasers to calculate accurate precise distances.

It will also act as Peregrine’s permanent location marker on the moon’s surface. Another sophisticated NASA instrument aboard Peregrine is the Lunar Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS). LETS will help calculate the radiation in the spacecraft’s environment, both in the moon’s orbit and on the lunar surface.

The remaining three payloads are different spectrometers including the Near Infrared Volatile Spectrometers System (NIRVSS), specifically used for measuring hydrogen on the lunar surface and subsurface, the Peregrine Ion Trap Mass Spectrometers for Lunar Surface Volatiles (PITMS), which will help in studying the moon’s atmosphere and the Neutron Spectrometer System, that will focus on searching for shifts in hydrogen-bearing materials on the lunar surface between the lunar day and night sessions.

Aside from five NASA payloads, the Astrobotic is also carrying 15 non-NASA payloads to the moon. Some of these payloads came from six nations hoping to send material to the moon’s surface for the first time. These nations include Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom, Hungary, the Seychelles and Nepal.

What Scientists Think About the Recent Launch of US Moon Landing Mission

During a recent interview with Space.com, Joel Kearns, a deputy associate administrator for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate shares his view about today’s launch.

“It’s an exciting time,” Joel Kearns, told Space.com in the days leading up to Vulcan’s launch. “It’s a totally new way of doing business,” Kearns said, “and [the Peregrine mission] is going to be our first data of how it’s gonna go.”

NASA’s CLPS contracts will greatly benefit the agency’s Artemis program. Note that the agency is hoping to land astronauts on the moon for the first time in the 21st century in 2025 or 2026 under its Artemis program. NASA is also looking forward to setting up a base on the lunar surface soon. That base will be at the lunar southern pole region where there is excess water ice.

“We have many, many scientific questions about the moon, about all different areas of the moon, but particularly the South Pole,” Kearns said. “We’d like to get better prepared to better plan the astronaut visits that will go to the South Pole, and eventually the Artemis base camp will be put there. And we really want to try to generate a lunar ecosystem of companies that are very skilled and successful about turning a service to bring things to the moon.”

Kearns also revealed that programs such as CLPS are giving NASA extra time to concentrate more on conducting cutting-edge research and development.

“We would really like to be in the position that, for things industry could do, we would like to just go to industry and buy that as a service,” he said. “And that lets us focus on more state-of-the-art things which are not clear to the industry how to do so that NASA could go pioneer those.”

When Peregrine lands as the first US moon landing mission after Apollo on February 23, the entire world will surely rejoice at this milestone and await the next phase of the mission.

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