NASA is poised to make history once again by sending the first commercial lander to the lunar surface in over 50 years. The Peregrine Mission One by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology is slated to launch in the coming days atop a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. This marks the beginning of a new era in lunar exploration driven by commercial partnerships.
Launch Preparations Underway
Final launch preparations are underway at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Astrobotic lander was successfully integrated onto the Vulcan Centaur rocket earlier this week. Teams have since been conducting final checkouts ahead of the targeted liftoff on Wednesday, January 4.
If successful, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will be the first American spacecraft to softly land on the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. It will touch down in the lunar southern pole region carrying scientific payloads from NASA and other partners.
Why Commercial Partners Are Critical
NASA sees commercial partners like Astrobotic as vital to establishing a sustained human presence on and around the Moon. The agency’s Artemis program aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025. But reach this goal, NASA is leveraging commercial launch vehicles like Vulcan Centaur and commercial landers to deliver cargo and science instruments.
The Astrobotic deal is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. This effort contracts private companies to transport scientific instruments and technology demonstrations to the Moon. NASA has similar partnerships with Intuitive Machines and other providers to support the Artemis missions.
|Peregrine Mission One
|Nova-C Lunar Lander
Milestones Leading Up to Launch
The Peregrine mission has overcome several hurdles on the way to the launch pad. Initially slated to fly in 2021, delays with the Vulcan Centaur rocket pushed the launch to 2023. The lunar lander was also swapped out for an upgraded variant called Peregrine Mission One.
Once integrated on the rocket, the lander faced unexpected trouble when engineers detected a small nitrogen leak on one of Peregrine’s isolator tanks. Thankfully, it was repaired quickly without issue.
If the January 4 launch proceeds as planned, the lander will embark on a three-month cruise to the Moon. It will target a landing site just northwest of the de Gerlache crater within the lunar south pole region on April 15, 2023.
Science Goals for the Mission
The 85-kilogram Peregrine lander will ferry 11 scientific and technology payloads to the lunar surface on behalf of NASA and other international partners. These instruments will study lunar geology, investigate the presence of water ice, demonstrate new technologies, and more.
Key payloads include:
- Lunar Vertex tool to extract oxygen from regolith
- PT-3 neutrino experiment
- MoonLIGHT tech demo to test precise landing
- Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploration (TRIDENT)
Researchers hope these payloads and future Artemis missions will reveal insights about the Moon’s composition and prepare us for longer-duration human missions. Establishing a sustained presence is key for using lunar resources and operating lunar bases.
What Comes Next
If Peregrine’s journey goes according to plan, it will pave the way for more CLPS deliveries to the Moon’s surface. NASA has contracted Intuitive Machines for up to five similar cargo missions carrying instruments, rovers, power sources and other enabling tech.
These initial flights will scout out landing sites and gather key data to inform the Artemis III lunar landing. While early CLPS missions focus on the Moon’s south pole, NASA is also interested in the permanently shadowed regions of the north pole. Future payloads could search for signs of accessible water ice in these areas.
The cadence of commercial Moon missions will accelerate rapidly if Peregrine meets its objectives. NASA is targeting two CLPS flights per year starting in 2024, which will require contributions from multiple providers like Masten Space Systems. The agency has funded over a dozen deliveries thus far.
This influx of commercial landers and accompanying instruments will provide vital logistics support, infrastructure and science for the upcoming Artemis missions. After a decades-long hiatus, NASA is riding a wave of commercial and international partnerships back to the lunar frontier.
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