On January 8th, 2024, at 2:18:34 AM, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket flew for the first time, carrying the Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander towards the Moon. This historic first flight ushers in a new era of American rocketry, debuting a new generation of heavy lifters and ending reliance on the Russian RD-180. Despite the tremendous success of Vulcan, the Peregrine lander remains in peril, with the spacecraft encountering an anomaly after separation from the Centaur upper stage.
As part of the Certification-1 or CERT-1 mission, Vulcan launched the Peregrine lunar lander for Astrobotic, flying its first mission as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service program (CLPS). This dynamic mission, sending a lander on a course to the moon, allows the company to demonstrate operations of the vehicle in a variety of different regimes, certifying it for both NASA and Department of Defense missions. CLPS represents a new approach to lunar exploration, leveraging commercial enterprise to provide a wide range of lunar landers. Vulcan also launched a number of secondary payloads, notably Celestis’ Enterprise Flight, a collection of DNA samples and cremated remains as part of a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Payload. Notable among the Memorial Spaceflight Payload are the ashes of ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry and stars James Doohan and Nichelle Nichols, which will be launched to a heliocentric orbit around the Sun.
After a flawless countdown and liftoff at 2:18:34, Vulcan’s first stage burned for roughly 5 minutes, powering the vehicle through chilly Florida skies. After SRB burnout and core stage shutdown, Centaur V ignited for the first time – burning for approximately 10 minutes to place the spacecraft into a preliminary parking orbit. After a nominal shutdown, and a 27 minute coast phase, the upper stage reignited for a short second burn. Following this 4 minute burn, the Peregrine lunar lander successfully separated from Centaur at a mission elapsed time of 50:28. Following separation, Centaur conducted a third burn to dispose of the stage in a heliocentric orbit, ending the mission for Vulcan.
After spacecraft separation, Peregrine began to activate onboard systems for its several week journey to the Moon. This all took place on schedule, however, the lander encountered an anomaly shortly after establishing a link with the Deep Space Network, preventing the spacecraft from pointing its solar panels correctly. According to Astrobotic, the situation remains in work, with the team executing a maneuver to reorient the spacecraft prior to an expected ground station handoff. Should this maneuver be unsuccessful, the landing may be called into question, and raises potential future concerns about NASA’s VIPER rover, set to head to the moon on the larger Astrobotic Griffin lander. Peregrine is currently slated to land on the moon on February 23rd, 2024 and operate for roughly 1 lunar day, should the mission be recovered. The targeted landing site for Mission One is the Gruithuisen Gamma region of the moon, a lunar dome in the Mare Imbrium region in the northern hemisphere. Several of the instruments onboard aim to characterize the local radiation and dust environment in support of later Artemis missions, with the goal of establishing a permanent sustained human presence on the moon, including the first woman and person of color to land on the lunar surface.
As a fully integrated vehicle, this configuration of Vulcan known as VC2S, sports two solid rocket motors and a short fairing, standing tall at 202 feet. Later versions of Vulcan will fly with a longer fairing, which is compliant with national security requirements Vulcan is powered by a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines, which flew for the first time during CERT-1 mission, on the first stage and a pair of RL10C-1-1 engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne on the Centaur V upper stage. Assisting the first stage is a pair of Northrop Grumman GEM-63XL solid rocket motors, derivatives of which have already successfully flown on the company’s Atlas V.
Speaking after launch, ULA CEO Tory Bruno had only one thing to say: “yee-haw! I am so thrilled, I cannot tell you how much. So far this has been an absolutely beautiful mission.” Across the members of the launch vehicle team present for launch, smiles were infectious, a powerful reminder of the nearly 16 years of hard work and dedication that the ULA, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne teams have poured into the development of this vehicle.
Following the launch of Peregrine, the next mission slated to head to orbit on Vulcan is Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane. Vulcan will launch the spaceplane as part of the SNC-Demo-1 mission to the International Space Station – a demonstration of a new cargo system for NASA as part of their Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. This launch is currently slated for Q2 of 2024, however, the uncertain experimental nature of the Dream Chaser space plane may be displaced by more time-sensitive missions booked on Vulcan, including Amazon’s Kuiper constellation.
The thunder of Vulcan Centaur’s BE-4 engines roaring to life for the first time marks not just a new phase in ULA’s evolution, but heralds the dawn of a new era in spaceflight. American rocketry, once constrained by complex geopolitical situations, is now stretching its wings once more – advancing the nation’s capability in an increasingly competitive field. With Peregrine’s fate uncertain, only time will tell how this first attempt at an American lunar landing in over 50 years will play out, but it goes without saying that this new era began with a bang.
UPDATE: At 1:03 PM ET, shortly after re-establishing contact with the Peregrine lander, Astrobotic announced that a failure in the propulsion system had caused a “critical loss of propellant”. In that update Astrobotic also stated that “we are assessing what alternate mission profiles may be feasible at this time” in order to maximize the science output of the lander despite the current condition of spacecraft.
Edited by JJ Carola