A brand new rocket launched a robotic spacecraft early Monday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., toward the lunar surface.
The launch of the Vulcan rocket was flawless. The spacecraft that carried it, built by Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology, separated 50 minutes into the flight and successfully activated its systems.
However, after a few hours, Astrobotic reported on social media service X The spacecraft, called Peregrine, is having trouble keeping itself in a stable orientation toward the Sun.
In Second updateThe company attributed the problem to a malfunction of Peregrine's propulsion system, which “if proven true, could threaten the spacecraft's ability to make a soft landing on the Moon.”
“The spacecraft's battery is reaching an operational low,” the company said, with the spacecraft's solar arrays unable to generate enough power.
An advanced maneuver has been attempted to orient the solar panels toward the sun, and engineers are waiting to see if it works.
If the astrobotic engineers can stabilize the power levels and keep the spacecraft alive, they will have time to come up with viable solutions. Peregrine is not scheduled to enter lunar orbit for two and a half weeks.
For United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the successful launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket was critical. The Vulcan is designed to replace two older rockets, and the U.S. Space Force relies on it to launch spy satellites and other spacecraft critical to U.S. national security.
The Vulcan is the first of several new rockets from Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, to dominate the current space launch market. SpaceX sent nearly 100 rockets into orbit last year. Other inaugural orbital launches in the coming months include European company Arianespace's Ariane 6 rocket and Blue Origin's New Glen, launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Throughout the night, the countdown to the Vulcan rocket went smoothly, and the weather cooperated.
At 2:18 a.m. ET, the rocket's engines ignited and lifted off the launch pad, heading east and over the Atlantic Ocean.
“Everything looks good,” Rob Cannon, a launch commentator for United Launch Alliance, repeated as the Vulcan rocketed into space.
“Yee-haw,” said Tory Bruno, the company's chief executive, after the lunar rover's deployment. “I'm so excited. I can't tell you how much.
The United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006, and for nine years has been the only company certified by the US government to launch national security payloads into orbit. Until now, it used two vehicles: the Boeing-built Delta IV, which will complete its final flight later this year, and the Lockheed Martin-built Atlas V, which is due to be retired in a few years.
There have been seventeen Atlas V launches, but the rocket uses Russian-built engines, which became politically unacceptable with the escalation of tensions between Russia and the United States. ULA has led the way to begin development of the Vulcan, which replaces the capabilities of both rockets at a lower cost, United Launch Alliance officials said.
“What's unique about Vulcan is that what we originally set out to do was deliver a rocket that had all the capabilities of Atlas and Delta in one structure,” said Mark Peller, ULA vice president in charge of Vulcan's development. “Because we have that adjustment, the configuration can really be tailored to the specific task.”
Vulcan can be configured in many different ways. The rocket's core, its central booster stage, is powered by two Blue Origin-manufactured BE-4 engines, engines that emit deep blue flames from burning methane fuel, also used in Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket.
Up to six solid rocket fuel boosters are attached to the sides of the core to increase the amount of mass it can lift into orbit. Its nose cone comes in two dimensions – a standard size of 51 feet long, and a longer one, 70 feet, for larger payloads.
“The publishing market is much stronger than it's been in decades,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Price Tech, a consulting firm in Alexandria. “And the expected demand will be enough to support multiple launch providers. Vulcan.”
ULA already has more than 70 missions to fly on Vulcan. Amazon has purchased 38 launches for Project Kuiper, a suite of communications satellites that will compete with SpaceX's Starlink network to deliver high-speed satellite internet.
Many of the other launches will be for the Space Force. ULA and SpaceX are currently the only companies authorized to launch national security missions. Monday's launch is the first of two demonstration missions the Space Force needs to gain confidence in the Vulcan before using the missile for military and surveillance payloads.
The second launch was Dream Chaser, an unmanned space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colo., on a mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. That could be followed by four additional Vulcan launches for the Space Force this year.
Astrobotic's lunar lander Peregrine was the main payload for Vulcan's first launch. Founded in 2007, Astrobotic is one of several private companies aiming to provide a delivery service on the lunar surface. Its primary customer for the mission was NASA, which paid Astrobotic $108 million to conduct five experiments. No US spacecraft has made a soft landing on the Moon since 1972.
It is part of the scientific work carried out by the space agency to prepare for the return of astronauts to the Moon under the Artemis program. Unlike in the past, when NASA built and operated its own spacecraft, this time it is relying on companies like Astrobotic to provide transportation.
In 2018 it announced an initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS for short. But it was slow to get off the ground. After a series of delays, Astrobotic's Peregrine flight will be the first CLPS mission into space.
Peregrine's landing destination on February 23 is the Sinus Viscositatis — Latin for “Bay of Stickiness” — an enigmatic region near the moon.
The second CLPS mission, by Intuitive Machines of Houston, is scheduled to launch in mid-February and is scheduled for a fast track to the moon, meaning it could reach the surface as early as February 23.
Vulcan also launched a secondary payload for the Celestis Enterprise, which memorialized humans by sending them into space by sending some of their ashes or DNA. Vulcan's upper stage houses 268 small cylindrical capsules in two toolbox-sized containers.
Survivors of this final voyage include Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; His wife, Majel Barrett, played Nurse Chapel in the original TV show; And three other actors on the show: DeForest Kelly, who played Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy; Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Uhura; and James Doohan, Montgomery Scott, Chief Engineer.
One of the capsules contains hair samples of three US presidents: George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
A final brief engine firing sent the second stage and the Celestis memory into orbit around the Sun.
Celestis, as well as another company that offers similar services, Elysium Space of San Francisco, also has a payload on Peregrine. That has sparked an outcry from leaders of the Navajo Nation, who say many Native Americans view the moon as a sacred place and consider it insulting to send human remains there. Navajo officials asked the White House to delay the release to discuss the matter.
Charles Saffer, CEO of Celestis, said he respects all people's religious beliefs, but “I don't think you can regulate spaceflight on religious grounds.”
During news conferences, NASA officials indicated that they were not responsible for the mission and did not directly comment on other payloads sold aboard the astrobotic Peregrine. “An intergovernmental meeting has been set up with the Navajo Nation, which NASA supports,” Joel Kearns, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a news conference Thursday.
John Thornton, Astrobotic's chief executive, said Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation came so late in the game” because his company announced the participation of Celestis and Elysium several years ago.
“We're really trying to do the right thing,” said Mr. Thornton said. “I believe we can find a good path with the Navajo Nation.”
Although Vulcan will launch several payloads over the next few years, its long-term prospects are limited. Other aerospace companies are looking to take some of the success of the Space Force business, and Amazon may shift many of its Khyber releases to Mr. Bezos' Blue Origin in the future.
Another factor affecting the Vulcan's future is that SpaceX is reusing its Falcon 9 boosters, which is likely to give it a significant cost advantage over ULA. Blue Origin plans to reuse new Glenn boosters.
ULA is developing technology that could be used to recover the two engines in the booster, the most expensive part of the rocket, but that will take years.