Astrobotic unveils private robotic lunar lander it aims to launch to the Moon this year

This afternoon, commercial space company Astrobotic unveiled its near-complete robotic lunar lander, designed to carry payloads for paying customers like NASA to the moon’s surface. It’s the first time the company is showing off the largely completed flight hardware for the lander ahead of its launch, which is tentatively scheduled for late this year.

Called the Peregrine Lunar Lander, the spacecraft is about the size of a stocky refrigerator and is just over six feet long. Five main engines mounted on the base of the lander help the vehicle navigate through space and eventually allow the vehicle to land on the moon’s surface. The vehicle has several locations where it can store assembled payloads for experiments designed to take advantage of the lunar environment and customers who simply want their products on the lunar surface.

Based in Pittsburgh, Astrobotic is one of two private companies aspiring to be the first to send a commercial robotic lander to the moon — and land it very very. The other is Intuitive Machines, based in Houston, which is building its own robotic lunar lander Nova-C. Both companies have received multi-million dollar contracts from NASA to boost development of their landers, which in turn provide the space agency with a way to get science experiments to the moon. It’s a small part of NASA’s flagship Artemis program, a major agency effort to eventually return humans to the lunar surface.

By funding multiple companies, NASA also hoped to spark some friendly competition. Originally, the agency had funded three companies in the first round of contracts known as the CLPS program, but one of the winners dropped out. Now it’s up to Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, both of whom want to fly their landers sometime this year.

“Our number one priority is mission success, and if it’s the first, great,” said John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, The edge† “And if not, that’s fine too. Really, success is key, but it will be the first commercial lander to be unveiled. We have not seen any hardware or pictures of [Intuitive Machines’] spacecraft yet.” (Another privately built lunar lander, made by the Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, attempted to reach the moon in 2019, but failed to quite hold the landing.)

Members of NASA’s leadership team, including administrator Bill Nelson and Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, attended the Astrobotic facility today for the unveiling. “This is an exciting time and our commercial partners are a big part of this,” Nelson said during brief remarks to Astrobotic.

An artistic rendering of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the moon.
Image: Astrobot

The flight structure of the lander was presented today, but some tanks, solar panels, propulsion and other attributes have yet to be added to the vehicle. “Obviously the lander is still under construction, but it’s far enough away that we can reveal it as it stands now,” Thornton said. “And it’s so exciting. It’s 15 years in the making.” Astrobotic declined to provide details on Peregrine’s charges or how much it charges customers for a spot on the lander.

For its first launch, the Peregrine lander will carry 24 payloads to the moon, according to the company. Just under half are science instruments from NASA, while the others come from a diverse group of commercial customers. One load includes a rover created by Carnegie Mellon students, and there is also a Mexican Space Agency micro rover. The lander will house some pretty unique payloads – such as a monthly cream capsule from Japan and a physical Bitcoin coin, “loaded” with one Bitcoin. The lander’s target destination is a region called Lacus Mortis – which eerily translates to “Lake of Death.” Once it lands, the Peregrine Falcon will try to last an entire Monday, about two weeks, before the extra-cold, two-week lunar night kicks in.

However, Astrobotic’s ride to the moon is still an open question. The Peregrine lander is slated to be the first-ever spacecraft to fly on the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket, a brand-new vehicle in development since 2014. However, the Vulcan is a few years late to make it to the launch pad, and it’s still not ready. The rocket is designed to fly on a new engine being built by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin called the BE-4, but those engines are also years behind schedule.

Thornton says he has received assurances from ULA that Vulcan will launch in the fourth quarter of this year and that the BE-4 engines will be ready by mid-year. He says Astrobotic has “no reason to doubt” ULA. “ULA is a legendary, successful company,” said Thornton. “So we’re very confident in the launch and that’s why we booked with them.”

One thing rivals Intuitive Machines is doing to have is a contract to fly a functioning rocket. The company is set to fly its Nova-C lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sometime later this year, though Intuitive Machines doesn’t have a date for the flight. As for the differences between the two landers, Thornton points out that the Peregrine lander is much stockier than the fairly tall Nova-C lander. He also mentions that the Peregrine will fly on “proven” hydrazine fuel, while Intuitive Machines experiments with a new cryogenic propulsion system.

“Ultimately, we’re both into moon delivery,” Thornton says. “And of course we think our lander is the best fit for our customers, and so far our customers have overwhelmingly chosen us over the competition.”

SOURCE – www.theverge.com

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