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First launch of ULA Vulcan rocket sends Astrobotic lander to moon

January 8, 2024

— The first launch of a next generation U.S. commercial rocket has sent a small lander on its way to possibly becoming the first private spacecraft to touch down on the moon.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which since its founding in 2006 has operated the Atlas and Delta family of rockets inherited from its parent companies of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, introduced its first new rocket, the Vulcan, which will replace both legacy vehicles. The Vulcan's maiden launch on Monday (Jan. 8) carried two payloads: Astrobotic's Peregrine moon lander and Celestis Memorial Spaceflights' "Enterprise" mission headed for a heliocentric orbit.

Update: Shortly after launch, Astrobotic's Peregrine lander suffered a propulsion issue ruling out any chance of a soft landing on the moon. Peregrine re-entered Earth's atmosphere and was destroyed on Jan. 18, 2024.

"This is the future of our company," said Mark Peller, ULA's vice president for Vulcan development, in a call with reporters on Friday. "ULA was formed and we had the opportunity to fly the Atlas and Delta systems, which has served us and our customers very well. [But] at the same time, technology has continued to move forward and there was an opportunity to develop a new rocket that could do everything Atlas and Delta could do, but do it with even greater performance."

"[Vulcan] is really positioning us for a very bright, prosperous future for many, many years to come," said Peller.

Vulcan Certification-1 launch. Click to enlarge video in new pop-up window. (ULA)

The 202-foot-tall (62-meter) inaugural Vulcan lifted off Monday at 2:18 a.m. EST (0718 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida — the same pad from where Atlas V rockets have flown since 2002. Powering the rocket's first stage were two BE-4 engines provided by Blue Origin, also making their first flight, and two Northrop Grumman GEM 63XL solid rocket boosters (SRBs), the longest single-segment motors ever flown.

ULA called this configuration, together with its 51-foot (15.5-meter) payload fairing, the "VC2S."

"Vulcan comes in multiple variants. We are flying what we call a 'VC2S,' a Vulcan-Centaur with two SRBs and the standard 51-foot-long payload fairing," said Peller.

"We have a vehicle that goes all the way from medium to heavy lift in a single core configuration," he said. "So unlike Delta or Titan or some of our competitors, where they have to use a multi-body or a three-body configuration vehicle for heavy lift, Vulcan can do that on a single core. We often call that single-core heavy capability and we do that by the flexibility of the system and the ability to add solid rocket boosters."

About a minute and 50 seconds into flight, the two solid rocket boosters on this Certification-1 (Cert-1) mission were jettisoned. About three minutes later, the core stage had exhausted its liquefied natural gas (LNG) propellant and separated from the Centaur V upper stage.

The Centaur is a cryogenic vehicle, fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, powered by two RL10C-1-1A engines. About five minutes into flight, the Centaur ignited, followed immediately by the jettison of the payload fairing, exposing the Peregrine lander and Celestis payload.

The first Centaur burn lasted approximately 10 and a half minutes. The vehicle then entered a coast for about 28 minutes, which was followed by a second, four-minute burn. Fifty minutes into flight, Peregrine separated from the stage into a highly elliptical orbit more than 220,000 miles (360,000 kilometers) above Earth, beginning its trip to intercept the moon.

(A third and final 20-second-burn was scheduled for an hour and 18 minutes into the flight to gather additional data on the performance of Centaur to prepare ULA for upcoming missions, including its National Security Space Launch (NSSL) manifest.)

Astrobotic's Peregrine is the first U.S. moon-bound lander since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The commercial probe is carrying five scientific instruments for NASA under a contract with the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, as well as international and private payloads, including the first DHL MoonBox with the personal mementos of more than 150 people.

"This will usher in not only great new science for NASA and the United States, but the first test of this new model where it's not NASA's mission, it is NASA being carried to the surface of the moon as part of a commercial mission," said Joel Kearns, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration in the science mission directorate.

Peregrine Mission One is targeting the Gruithuisen Domes in Sinus Viscositatis ("Bay of Stickiness") on the northeast border of Oceanus Procellarum ("Ocean of Storms") for Astrobotic's first moon landing. The touchdown is scheduled for Feb. 23, possibly within a day of Intuitive Machines, another U.S. company and NASA CLPS partner, which is currently targeting a landing with its NOVA-C lander near the lunar south pole.

In addition to flying a number of capsules within the DHL MoonBox that will land with Astrobotic's Peregrine on the moon, the Celestis Memorial Spaceflights' "Enterprise" mission will continue flying with the Centaur upper stage to enter a distant orbit around the Sun. The "Enterprise" payload carries cremated remains (ashes), DNA samples and messages of greetings from more than 150 Celestis clients, including "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett and members of the original television show's cast James Doohan ("Scotty"), DeForest Kelley ("McCoy") and Nichelle Nichols ("Uhura").


A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket lifts off on its first mission carrying Astrobotic's first Peregrine moon lander from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 8, 2024. (Sean Cannon)

United Launch Alliance's first Vulcan rocket sits ready to launch at Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (ULA)

Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander is seen prior to encapsulation in preparation for launch on ULA's first (Cert-1) Vulcan rocket. (ULA)

United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Cert-1 and Astrobotic's Peregrine Mission One (PM1) mission patches. (ULA/Astrobotic)

After launching on ULA's Vulcan-Centaur rocket, Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander separates into a highly elliptical orbit more than 220,000 miles (360,000 kilometers) above Earth to intercept the moon. The company is targeting a Feb. 23, 2024 landing in the Bay of Stickiness. (Astrobotic)

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