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, had trouble pointing its solar panels at the Sun to generate electricity.
Company Then said The cause of the problem was a malfunction of the peregrine's propulsion system.
An advanced maneuver Successfully retrofitted solar panels Back to the sun, allowing the battery to charge. However, the spacecraft lost most of its propulsion and could not land on the moon.
“The team is working to try and stabilize the loss, but given the situation, we've prioritized maximizing the science and data we can capture.” Astrobotic said. “We are currently assessing what alternative work profiles are possible at this time.”
Peregrine led five NASA missions to closely study the Moon. NASA officials say they are willing to take more risks for these low-cost missions.
“Every success and setback is an opportunity to learn and grow,” Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration in NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “We will use this lesson to fuel our efforts to advance science, exploration and commercial development of the Moon.”
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. 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.
A second CLPS mission by Houston's Intuition Engines is scheduled to launch in mid-February.
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.
Peregrine's defeat sidelined the opposition of the Navajo Nation leaders for the time being.
Celestis and another company that offers similar services, Elysium Space of San Francisco, also have payloads on astrobotic spacecraft. In a letter to NASA and the United States Department of Transportation, Chief Buu Nygren of the Navajo Nation asked that the launch be delayed because many Native Americans consider the moon sacred.
“Placing human remains and other objects, which would be considered discards anywhere else, on the moon is tantamount to desecrating this sacred place,” said Mr. Nygren wrote.
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.