ULA, NASA Nearly Ready to Launch Astrobotics’ Lunar Lander

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Astrobotic are on the cusp of a groundbreaking achievement as they aim for the inaugural commercial robotic lunar launch scheduled for 2:18 a.m. EST on Monday, January 8. This historic event is a pivotal part of NASA’s CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) initiative and the broader Artemis program, signifying a significant stride in advancing lunar exploration.

If successful, Astrobotics’ Peregrine lander will reach the Gruithuisen Domes region on the Moon. Scientists say these domes could have formed from slow-moving lava, which makes them different from other regions of the Moon with features that could have formed from lava.

“It implies that maybe there was water on the interior of the moon that allowed the magma to change in composition, to have this unique and distinct composition from the rest of the volcanic plains,” said University of Central Florida planetary scientist Kerri Donaldson Hanna, who leads the science team for a suite of onboard scientific instruments known as the Lunar Vulkan Imaging and Spectroscopy Explorer.

Set to take place at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, the mission involves the ULA Vulcan rocket carrying Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander. This marks the maiden voyage for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, which incorporates cutting-edge engines developed by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, while leveraging the proven technology of ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

In addition to the Astrobotics lander, the secondary payload for this historic mission includes contributions from private space entities like Celestis and Elysium Space. Among these payloads are the cremated remains of several individuals, including Gene Roddenberry, the visionary creator of Star Trek.

However, the launch faced a request for delay from Buu Nygren, President of Navajo Nation, expressing concerns about the inclusion of human remains on the mission. Nygren emphasized the Moon’s spiritual significance to the Navajo people. While NASA expressed empathy, the agency’s authority over private payload launches is limited. It could only promise to engage in discussions with concerned parties, including the Navajo Nation.

“We don’t have the framework for telling them [referring to non-NASA-affiliated private parties] what they can and can’t fly,” said NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program Manager, Chris Culbert.

Live coverage of the launch will be available on NASA+, NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website, commencing with prelaunch events on Thursday, January 4. Interested viewers can follow events online at https://www.nasa.gov/nasatv.

The Peregrine lunar lander is slated to land on the Moon on Friday, February 23. Laden with NASA science payloads, the cargo aims to contribute to the development of capabilities crucial for exploring the Moon under the Artemis program. These efforts precede human missions to the lunar surface, underscoring NASA’s unwavering commitment to lunar exploration.

The extensive coverage of the mission included a science media briefing featuring prominent participants such as Paul Niles (CLPS project scientist, NASA Headquarters) and Chris Culbert (CLPS program manager, NASA’s Johnson Space Center). This briefing was hosted via WebEx on Thursday, January 4, and participants could pose questions directly to the speakers. A replay of the briefing is available in the below video.

On Friday, January 5, a lunar delivery readiness media teleconference will occur at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. Participants include Joel Kearns (Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters) and representatives from Astrobotic and ULA. This teleconference will be open for media questions via phone.

The launch day, Monday, January 8, will feature NASA TV launch coverage starting at 1:30 a.m., leading up to the launch at 2:18 a.m. The audio of news conferences and launch coverage will be accessible on the NASA ā€œVā€ circuits, with the full mission broadcast and countdown net available during the launch. The launch will be live-streamed in the below video.

For those unable to attend in person, the public can register to virtually witness the launch, receiving curated resources and mission-specific information. Following each activity, virtual guests will receive a commemorative stamp for their virtual guest passport.

To stay engaged on social media, viewers can use the hashtag #Artemis on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, sharing their excitement about this groundbreaking lunar exploration mission.

In May 2019, NASA awarded a task order for the scientific payload delivery to Astrobotic, marking one of the first of at least eight CLPS deliveries already planned. As part of Artemis, NASA collaborates with multiple CLPS vendors to ensure a regular cadence of lunar deliveries for scientific investigations, technology testing, and capability demonstrations, paving the way for future human missions to the Moon. For media inquiries related to the launch provider, ULA, contact via media@ulalaunch.com, and for inquiries related to the CLPS provider, Astrobotic, contact the communication department at contact@astrobotic.com.