WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares for the first launch of a commercial lunar lander carrying agency-sponsored payloads, it is trying to balance the science it can achieve with the challenges of landing on the moon and other emerging concerns.

United Launch Alliance said Jan. 4 that it has completed the launch readiness review for the inaugural flight of its Vulcan Centaur rocket, a mission designated Cert-1. That review confirmed a planned launch at 2:18 a.m. Eastern Jan. 8, with an 85% chance of acceptable weather.

The primary payload of Cert-1 is Peregrine, a commercial lunar lander developed by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic. The launder is carrying 20 payloads, including five instruments from NASA under a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) award made in 2019.

Three of the instruments — the Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) and Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) — will work together to study volatiles like water on the surface and the moon’s exosphere.

“We don’t expect natural water at this Peregrine landing location,” said Richard Elphic, principal investigator for NSS at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a Jan. 4 media teleconference. The landing location, near the Gruithuisen Domes, is outside of the polar regions thought to harbor water and other ices. “But, the lander will spray-paint the surface with its rocket exhaust during its descent,” which he said includes water that NSS and the other two instruments could detect.

The three instruments working together, he said, “may help us better understand how water molecules migrate and possibly end up at the cold lunar poles.”

Other volatiles that the instruments could detect include carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane, said Tony Colaprete, principal investigator for NIRVSS at NASA Ames. It could also detect sulfur-bearing compounds that can survive higher temperatures. “It will be interesting to see if there is any sulfur at this landing site,” he said, citing the detection of sulfur by India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission last year at a latitude of about 70 degrees south.

“We’re very interested in understanding the decay of the hydrazine plume from the descent engines,” said Barbara Cohen, principal investigator for PITMS at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. That instrument can also detect a range of volatiles as well as noble gases in the exosphere.

A fourth instrument, the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer, will take radiation measurements during the lander’s cruise to the moon and in orbit around it as well as after landing. A fifth instrument, the Laser Retroreflector Array, is a passive instrument designed to support ranging measurements of the lander and is similar to retroreflectors flown on other landers, including those from other space agencies.

NASA had planned to fly up to 10 instruments on Peregrine, but last year NASA removed five of them. Agency officials said at a Nov. 29 briefing that it removed those experiments because of issues with the performance of the lander and the descent engines available for it.

At this briefing, Chris Culbert, NASA CLPS program manager, said the agency was balancing the science it wants to do with early lander missions with demonstrating that the landers can safely make it to the surface.

“These early missions have some clear science opportunities, but we weren’t being driven by specific science strategies until we were reasonably confident that the marketplace could actually deliver and land on the moon softly,” he said. Later CLPS missions will have more complex science objectives, he added.

There is also uncertainty about the business case for commercial lunar landers. “I don’t think it’s all that clear, certainly to us at NASA,” what markets will drive demand for such landers, he said. “I think you’ll see that evolve quite a bit over time, but the first step is a successful landing.”

Navajo Nation concerns

Besides the five NASA instruments, Peregrine is carrying payloads from a wide range of companies and organizations, including national space agencies. Among them are items from Celestis and Elysium Space, two companies that offer to take samples of cremated remains to space as a memorial.

Those payloads have prompted sharp criticism from the Navajo Nation, which views placing human remains on the moon an act of desecration. The president of Navajo Nation, Buu Nygren, said last month he asked NASA to delay the launch because of those payloads, citing an agreement after the Lunar Prospector mission in 1998, which carried the ashes of planetary science Eugene Shoemaker. NASA, responding to criticism from Navajo Nation then, said it would consult with them before any future missions.

At the Jan. 4 briefing, Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the agency did receive a letter from Navajo Nation requesting a “tribal consultation” about those payloads. The letter also went to the Department of Transportation, which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses commercial launches.

“An intergovernmental team is currently looking into this in more detail,” he said, including setting up a meeting with Navajo Nation officials. He said the agency could not provide more details about that effort, including when that meeting may take place.

It is unclear that NASA could do anything about those payloads, though, since they are flying on a commercial lander rather than a NASA-led mission. “These are commercial missions. We don’t have the framework for telling them what they can and can’t fly,” Culbert said. Any such approval would likely come from the FAA though the payload review that is part of the launch licensing process, he said.

Commercial lunar landers “is a totally new industry, and it is an industry where everyone is learning as we have set this up over the last few years,” Kearns added. “We take concerns like the ones expressed by the Navajo Nation very, very seriously, and we think we’re going to be continuing this conversation.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...