WASHINGTON — Astrobotic’s first lunar lander is ready for a launch in early January that would set up a landing on the moon in late February.
The Pittsburgh-based company announced Dec. 19 that its Peregrine lunar lander has completed all its pre-launch integration activities, which include fueling the lander and mating it with the payload adapter for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket. That, along with preparations for the rocket itself, set up a launch attempt as soon as Jan. 8 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Astrobotic had hoped to launch Peregrine this month, with a launch period of Dec. 24 to 26 enabling a Jan. 25 landing attempt. However, ULA postponed the launch to complete a wet dress rehearsal that was interrupted by problems with ground systems in early December. ULA said Dec. 14 that it completed the dress rehearsal and confirmed a Jan. 8 launch date.
Peregrine is carrying 20 commercial and government payloads, including five provided by NASA as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The non-NASA payloads range from a small lunar rover developed by Carnegie Mellon University and a set of even smaller rovers from the Mexican Space Agency to commemorative and memorial payloads from companies and organizations.
Five other NASA instruments originally manifested on Peregrine were taken off the lander earlier this year. Chris Culbert, NASA CLPS program manager, said at a Nov. 29 briefing that decision was linked to the performance of the lander and the descent engines available for it.
“Rather than delay this mission further to wait on additional engine development, we worked with Astrobotic to agree on getting the most important payloads delivered as early as possible,” he said. “We did jointly agree to demanifest a handful of payloads from the first mission to enable that first mission to be more likely to succeed.” Those payloads will be flown on later CLPS missions.
“If you’ve been following the lunar industry, you understand landing on the Moon’s surface is incredibly difficult. With that said, our team has continuously surpassed expectations and demonstrated incredible ingenuity” throughout the lander’s development, said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, in a statement. “We are ready for launch, and for landing.”
A launch in the window that opens Jan. 8 would set up a landing on Feb. 23, Astrobotic stated. Rather than go directly to the lunar surface, the spacecraft will enter lunar orbit , lowering the apolune, or high point in its orbit, from 9,000 kilometers to 100 kilometers. “Most of the time between launch and landing is waiting for the local lighting to be correct,” Thornton said at the Nov. 29 briefing.
That means that Peregrine could be the first CLPS mission to launch but not the first to land. Intuitive Machines is planning a launch of its IM-1 lunar lander mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 between Jan. 12 and 16. That mission will take a more direct approach to the moon, setting up a landing either Jan. 19 to 21.
While Intuitive Machines has said preparations for IM-1 remain on track, the mission could face a launch delay. The launch must take place from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, which is the only SpaceX pad at Cape Canaveral equipped to fuel the lander with liquid oxygen and methane propellants shortly before launch.
However, LC-39A is currently set up to support the Falcon Heavy launch of the X-37B military spaceplane, whose launch has slipped to no earlier than Dec. 28 because of launch vehicle issues. It takes around three weeks to reconfigure the pad for Falcon 9 launches, meaning that it may not be ready in time to support the IM-1 launch before the January launch period closes.