LAS VEGAS — United Launch Alliance now plans to launch its first Vulcan Centaur rocket on Christmas Eve, carrying a commercial lunar lander.

The company announced Oct. 24 that the launch of the Cert-1 mission, the inaugural flight of the Vulcan Centaur, is scheduled for Dec. 24 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The mission will carry Peregrine, a commercial robotic lunar lander developed by Astrobotic, as well as a payload from space memorial company Celestis that will remain attached to the rocket.

In an interview with CNBC used to announce the launch date, Tony Bruno, chief executive of ULA, said the date is driven by the requirements of Peregrine. “We’re going to a part of the moon where they need very carefully controlled lighting conditions and they also have to stay in radio communication with the Deep Space Network,” he said. “When you put the two together, we get just a few days every month.”

Bruno said there are launch opportunities on Dec. 24, 25 and 26. If the launch does not take place on those days, there is a backup window in January, but Bruno did not state when in the month that would be.

Preparations for the launch are on track. Bruno said final work on the Centaur is in progress ahead of shipping it to the launch site, while some qualification testing is being completed in parallel. “Both of those get done in November,” he said.

The Peregrine lander is already ready, a company executive said at AIAA’s ASCEND conference here Oct. 24, before the launch date announcement. “We’re waiting for the green light to ship to ULA,” said Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development.

The debut of Vulcan has suffered years of delays, much of it linked to issues with the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines used in the rocket’s first stage. Earlier this year, a mishap during testing of the Centaur upper stage prompted changes to the stage that delayed the launch from the spring to the fourth quarter.

Bruno said in the CNBC interview that he expects to perform “several” Vulcan launches in 2024, increasing the launch rate to meet the needs of customers like Amazon, whose Project Kuiper broadband constellation will launch in part on Vulcan.

“When we get halfway through ’25, we’ll be launching every two weeks, so you’ll see a steady ramp up,” he said. ULA is building up a stockpile of Vulcan vehicles to help meet that increased cadence.

Hendrickson said Astrobotic is ready for the first launch with Peregrine on board. “It’s time to launch and land,” he said. “We’ve been talking about doing this for 16 years. This is the moment.”

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...