Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander, set to launch atop ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, seeks to achieve the first private moon landing. Sponsored by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, it carries instruments to study lunar conditions and controversial space burials. The mission, representing a leap for the U.S. commercial space industry, aims for a historic touchdown on February 23.

Photo: Space Center Houston
Photo: Space Center Houston

Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander: Countdown to the First Commercial Lunar Mission

As the countdown ticks away, a privately developed lunar lander named “Peregrine,” crafted by Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic, stands on the brink of a pioneering mission. Scheduled to launch today (08 January, 2024) at 2:18 a.m. ET, this uncrewed spacecraft will ride the United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aiming to secure its place in history as the first commercial mission to gracefully land on the moon.

Launch Details and Weather Conditions

The debut flight of the Vulcan Centaur booster marks a significant milestone, scheduled to unfold on Monday. NASA, the United States’ premier space agency, expressed confidence with an 85% chance of favorable weather conditions for the launch. If all unfolds as planned, Astrobotic could etch its name in the history books, becoming the first private company to execute a controlled or “soft” lunar landing.

Should the Peregrine mission succeed, it heralds a groundbreaking moment for the budding commercial space industry. Until now, lunar landings have been the exclusive domain of national space agencies from the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, and India. The prospect of a private company achieving this feat not only signifies a leap in space exploration but also opens up avenues beyond governments and military entities.

A Lunar Odyssey with NASA’s Backing

Although a private initiative, the Peregrine mission is not flying solo. It proudly carries the sponsorship of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, an integral part of the agency’s broader lunar exploration efforts. This program allows NASA to engage private firms, like Astrobotic, in ferrying scientific instruments and equipment to the moon, reinforcing a collaborative approach to space exploration.

Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, highlighted the significance of such partnerships. According to Kearns, leveraging entrepreneurship and innovation in the American industrial base through collaborations with commercial providers enables NASA to conduct more frequent and cost-effective lunar missions.

The Peregrine lander, representing the vanguard of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, carries five instruments from NASA. Among them are gauges designed to measure the lunar surface’s radiation environment and spectrometers for studying material abundance, including hydrogen. These scientific endeavors align with NASA’s overarching goals of expanding our understanding of the moon’s composition and conditions.

Controversy Surrounding the Mission

However, not all aspects of the mission have been without controversy. The inclusion of payloads from two companies, Elysium Space and Celestis, specializing in “space burials” raised concerns. Buu Nygren, President of the Navajo Nation, expressed dismay, describing the act of leaving human remains on the moon as “a profound desecration” of a celestial body considered sacred in various Indigenous cultures.

The Peregrine lunar lander at the company's facility in Pittsburgh. (Jordan K. Reynolds / Astrobotic Technology via AP)
The Peregrine lunar lander at the company’s facility in Pittsburgh. (Jordan K. Reynolds / Astrobotic Technology via AP)

John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, acknowledged the concerns during a recent news briefing. Expressing disappointment that the issue wasn’t raised earlier, Thornton emphasized the company’s commitment to doing the right thing and expressed hope for a constructive path forward with the Navajo Nation.

If the Peregrine mission proceeds as scheduled on Monday, its touchdown on the moon is anticipated on February 23. The chosen landing site, Sinus Viscositatis, holds historical significance, marked by ancient lava flows. As the mission moves forward, it is expected to contribute valuable data and insights, adding to humanity’s knowledge of the lunar surface.

Astrobotic’s Vision for Pittsburgh and Beyond

In a pre-launch briefing, John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic, outlined the broader significance of the Peregrine mission. He sees it as a pivotal moment for the commercial space industry in the United States, poised to usher in a new era of space technology and innovation. Thornton highlighted the mission’s potential to not only elevate Astrobotic but also to symbolize the resilience and adaptability of the city of Pittsburgh.

“We are bringing a new space state online,” Thornton remarked. “Pittsburgh comes from steel and went through downturns in the ’70s and ’80s and has since reinvented itself, and this mission is a representation that if Pittsburgh can land on the moon, Pittsburgh can do anything.”

As the world awaits the outcome of this historic mission, the Peregrine lander stands as a symbol of human ingenuity, collaboration, and the unyielding spirit of exploration. The success of this mission could mark a paradigm shift in space exploration, bringing it one step closer to becoming an inclusive endeavor with contributions from both public and private entities.

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