On December 19, 1972, NASA's Apollo 17 mission ended with a big splash in the Pacific. Aboard the capsule are three men, the last three astronauts of the American space program. A little more than fifty years later, the United States is preparing to land on the Moon again. But it won't be NASA's doing. And they won't be humans yet...
It is not a rocket but a smaller craft from Astrobotic, a company of about 150 employees located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that will have the daunting task of succeeding Apollo 17. The Peregrine Mission 1 lander is scheduled to leave Cape Canaveral on Dec. 24 for a 17- to 19-day journey into space before being put into orbit around Earth's natural satellite. If the beautiful 1.3-tonne baby touches the lunar surface on January 25, it will become the first commercial mission to do so, following Israeli and Japanese failures in recent years.
It will also be the first time expected for the one that will take off Peregrine, the Vulcan rocket of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Compared to Ariane 6, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy or China's Long March, this heavy launcher is a small format less than 60 m high.
Versatility. Affordability. Performance. Those are among the hallmarks of #VulcanRocket, offering efficient, high-tempo operations to launch commercial, civil and national security missions to any orbit. Join the excitement for Vulcan's #Cert1 launch targeted for Dec. 24! pic.twitter.com/NrKCa2rLI1
— ULA (@ulalaunch) October 26, 2023
Low-cost and high-risk
Peregrine Mission 1 is the first step in a NASA program called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). The idea for the American space agency is to entrust private operators with the landing of scientific or technological equipment, while pooling the costs with other customers. "NASA's leaders are aware of the risks and have accepted that some of these missions could fail," Chris Culbert, project manager at the agency, said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
The Peregrine lander will therefore have to drop off twenty aircraft from seven different countries, including five from NASA. These will make it possible to collect data to advance knowledge about the Earth's satellite and contribute to preparing for future manned missions. Including, of course, Artemis 3, which could see astronauts return to the Moon as early as 2025. These instruments include LETS, which will be used to measure the radiation to which these humans will be subjected, and NIRVSS, which will study hydration at the surface.
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The Peregrine landing site is a plain on the near side of the Moon called Sinus Viscositatis. Once its short mission has been completed, the adventure will not end there for Astrobotic, which is expected to send a spacecraft to the South Pole next year to analyse water resources. However, it is another American company, Intuitive Machines, that will be the first to set sail for this strategic area on January 12.
While China and India have already invested in the ice-rich region of the South Pole, there is no question for John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, of suggesting a kind of gold rush. On Wednesday, he noted that Japan's Ispace had been transparent about the failure of its 2022 lunar mission: "Collectively, as a species, the more launches we aim at the Moon, the smarter we'll become."