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Three Lunar Landers Target Arrival in January

Astrobotic’s Peregrine (left) and Intuitive Machine’s Nova-C (center) are set to land on the lunar surface this coming January, alongside the Japanese SLIM mission.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth

2024 is shaping up to be a year of triumphant lunar return, with several missions planned to welcome in a new age of international exploration of Earth’s nearest neighbor. This first wave consists of numerous robotic explorers, each set to demonstrate new capabilities that will ultimately benefit the next human explorers to walk on the surface as part of the Artemis Program. Coincidentally, three of these landers aim to reach the moon around the same time: Astrobotic’s Peregrine, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C and JAXA’s SLIM, with projected touchdowns in January.  

Pittsburgh’s Astrobotic will be the first company off the starting line in this sprint for the moon, with their Peregrine lander riding atop the debut flight of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket – currently scheduled for liftoff no earlier than January 8, 2024. The mission is the first of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, an initiative to enable cargo delivery to the lunar surface through commercial contracting. The lander itself is a reconfigurable platform, designed to support a wide range of mission types. Peregrine is about 2.5 m wide and 1.9 m tall, weighing in at around 2,800 lb and is able to deliver up to 584 lb of payload to the surface of the Moon. Its electrical systems will be powered by a lithium-ion battery system that is recharged by a deck-mounted solar panel. The lander does not carry heaters, so the first few Peregrine landers are not expected to survive the lunar night, which lasts 14 Earth days. For Mission One, the vehicle will carry a number of small instruments for both NASA and commercial groups, with NASA being the largest contractor. Peregrine is projected to land near Mons Gruithuisen Gamma in Sinus Viscosatis sometime in January. 

Nova-C stands ready to be shipped from its Houston assembly facility to Kennedy Space Center for final integration and checkout ahead of flight.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

Houston-based Intuitive Machines aims to be the second American lander on the moon as part of CLPS with the launch of their Nova-C lander for IM-1. The company, currently planning for launch on January 12, 2024 on a SpaceX Falcon 9, is already looking to the future with a second mission planned to land in the Lunar South Pole, and a third to land in Reiner Gamma carrying several instruments for NASA. Nova-C will carry up to five NASA-sponsored instruments onboard IM-1, the second of NASA’s CLPS missions. The lander will also carry payloads from other commercial customers, including the EagleCAM cubesat for Embry Riddle University. The lander will operate for one lunar day, as it does not have the provisions to survive the long and cold lunar night. The planned landing site has changed several times. At one point it was to land between Mare Serenitatis and Mare Crisium. As of February 2023, the landing site was identified as Malapert A near the South Pole, with a landing date of January 19-20, 2024. 

The H-IIA carrying SLIM and the XRISM telescope lifts off from Tanegashma on September 6, 2023.
Credit: JAXA

While the previous two missions are yet to launch, the third lunar lander projected to land in January has been in space since September 6, 2023. Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) was launched in September onboard an H-IIA rocket, hitching a ride with the XRISM telescope. The mission’s long transfer time comes from its weak stability boundary trajectory, a unique low energy transfer that takes significantly longer than a traditional transfer, but minimizes fuel expenditure. SLIM is Japan’s first lunar surface mission, and aims to demonstrate pinpoint lunar landing. During its descent to the Moon, the lander will identify lunar craters and other terrain features by applying technology adapted from facial recognition systems, and determine its current location from utilizing observation data collected by the SELENE lunar orbiter mission. SLIM aims to soft land with an accuracy range of 330 ft, and execute a unique belly flop maneuver for final descent – turning to settle on its side after engine shutdown. The mission will carry with it two small rovers, Lunar Excursion Vehicle 1 and 2, with the hopes of becoming the first Japanese rovers to operate on the Lunar surface. Touchdown is currently planned for January 19, 2024, making SLIM the first of the three landers to reach the surface. 

These landing missions are bold, and build off of years of orbital survey of the lunar surface, as well as extensive preparation work on the part of respective parent agencies and companies. Mapping and survey work from both Japanese and American orbiters has painted an extensively clear picture of the Lunar surface, and has enabled these landing missions to proceed towards well characterized sites. However, they all carry some degree of risk. As highlighted in Space Scout’s previous reporting on CLPS, the status of the program does not include major oversight unless a large payload is flying onboard. In the case of Astrobotic, this will only come when NASA’s VIPER rover flies onboard their larger Griffin lander, slated for the end of 2024. For Intuitive Machines, this supervision may come on flight two with the inclusion of NASA’s PRIME-1 instrument, a drill to explore water ice trapped underneath the surface near Shackleton Crater. SLIM’s mission management is firmly centered within JAXA’s authority, but the difficulty of landing on the lunar surface should not be understated. OMOTENASHI, the cubesat lander flown on Artemis I, was not successful in achieving its mission goals of demonstrating small landing technologies – leaving Japan without this experience. 

These three missions, while not as big and flashy as other programs, represent a significant leap for Lunar exploration. In many ways, this first series of missions is a test – one that hopefully showcases CLPS’ ability to land payloads on the lunar surface, and demonstrates of JAXA’s abilities as a lunar capable nation. For Artemis, these missions represent a key step forward in developing landing technologies that can be utilized for a variety of purposes, and eventually scaled up to deliver human rated systems. With the launch of Peregrine and Nova-C on the horizon, the race to the moon will soon be truly on. 

NOTE: Launch dates for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket and Peregrine have changed, both companies are now targeting January 8th 2024. Changes are reflected in this article.

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