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Plans for first US lunar landing since Apollo revealed

The first American spacecraft expected to land on the Moon in almost 50 years will be an unmanned robotic lander built by Astrobotic Technology, which will be launched by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket in 2021, the companies have announced.

The Pittsburgh-based robotics company was selected by Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme – where nine companies developed small space vehicles and other technology for 20 missions to explore the lunar surface over the next decade – to deliver up to 14 Nasa payloads to the Moon on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander in 2021.

The Peregrine lunar lander will fly onboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, currently under development by a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which is scheduled to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral in summer 2021. This launch will be Vulcan’s first, and a major test for a rocket that will become the backbone of ULA’s defence against rival boosters from billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other companies.

“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur,” said Astrobotic’s CEO, John Thornton. “When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise.”

Astrobotic says that – barring schedule slips – Peregrine will be the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon since Apollo astronauts touched down in 1972. Furthermore, the mission will ferry technology and experiments to the Moon under the CLPS programme that will be the foundation for astronaut trips by 2024 under the optimistic schedule laid out by the Trump administration.

“Our rockets have carried exploration missions to the Moon, the Sun, and every planet in the solar system so it is only fitting that Vulcan Centaur’s inaugural flight will lead the return of Americans to the lunar surface,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive. “We could not be more excited to fly this mission for Astrobotic.”

 

In May, Astrobotic announced that Nasa had awarded the company $79.5m (£66m) for the first mission, which will carry up to 28 payloads from eight different countries, including the US and Mexico. Furthermore, the company has already signed up 16 customers for delivery on this mission, which will log onto the Peregrine and can support up to 90kg for the mission.

While the dollar value of the launch contract was not disclosed, it marks a high-profile victory for ULA’s flagship heavy-lift rocket, which Astrobotic said it chose over a rival bid from SpaceX. And while SpaceX has already slashed the cost of launches with its reusable rocket technology, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, whose BE-4 engines power the Vulcan, is also working on a heavy-lift booster.

Under a strategy championed by Trump-appointed administrator Jim Bridenstine, Nasa is pushing to outsource the design, development and operations for some space activities to private companies. Bridenstine also wants Nasa to be one customer of many in the low-Earth and lunar marketplaces to pave way for deeper space exploration.

For ULA, the launch of this mission will also serve as the first of two certification flights for Vulcan’s US Air Force Certification process. Also, Vulcan will replace ULA’s Delta and Atlas rocket families, synonymous with space missions for the US military for decades.

The US is not the only country focused on lunar exploration, however. A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon in January, though Israel’s unmanned robotic lander Beresheet crashed on its final descent in April. Furthermore, India’s Chandrayaan-2 rover, launched in July, has a mission to study the Moon’s south pole, unexplored by any other nation.

Chandrayaan-2 is currently in lunar orbit, and the Vikram lander is due to soft-land on the Moon on 7 September.

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