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Vulcan Rocket Poised for Historic Maiden Flight Carrying Lunar Lander to Moon

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The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) groundbreaking Vulcan rocket is gearing up for its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral. Scheduled for early Monday, this historic launch marks the first American moon lander mission in over 50 years, showcasing ULA’s new heavy-lift booster while carrying the Peregrine lander, developed by Astrobotic.

Peregrine, a small robotic probe, carries a payload of 20 experiments and international contributions, including six instruments from NASA and a high-value sensor worth $108 million. Among the diverse payloads are university experiments, Mexican and U.S. micro rovers, artwork, compact time capsules, a bitcoin, and even a collection of human “cremains” provided by memorial spaceflight companies.

While the Peregrine lander is the focal point of the mission, the maiden flight of the Vulcan rocket is equally momentous. ULA’s Vulcan replaces the Atlas and Delta launchers, signifying a pivotal shift in the company’s spaceflight capabilities. Liftoff from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is scheduled for 2:18 a.m. EST on Monday, with multiple launch opportunities within a 45-minute window.

ULA’s Vulcan rocket, powered by methane-burning BE-4 engines developed by Blue Origin, boasts a thrust of 1.1 million pounds at liftoff. Accompanied by Northrop Grumman strap-on solid-propellant boosters, the total thrust exceeds 2 million pounds. The Vulcan’s design aims to consolidate the capabilities of both Atlas and Delta in a single system, providing enhanced performance at a more cost-effective price point.

The Peregrine spacecraft, built by Astrobotic, serves a dual purpose. It carries out tests and checkout procedures in lunar orbit before embarking on a historic descent to the moon’s surface near the Gruithuisen Domes. This mission, 16 years in the making, represents a significant achievement for Astrobotic and a promising start for ULA’s Vulcan.

Joel Kearns, a senior manager at NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS), highlighted the broader significance of this mission. CLPS, designed to spur commercial lunar transportation and surface delivery services, reflects a new model where commercial entities take the lead in lunar exploration, with NASA being part of a commercial mission.

Mark Peller, ULA’s vice president of Vulcan development, emphasized that the Vulcan rocket is pivotal for the company’s future. Positioned as a highly competitive and cost-effective solution, Vulcan has already garnered an order book of over 70 missions before its first flight. The new rocket offers a single-core configuration capable of handling medium to heavy lift requirements.

While SpaceX currently dominates commercial launches, ULA’s Vulcan presents a strong contender in the market. The rocket’s capabilities extend beyond low-Earth orbit, with a more powerful hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage equipped with Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engines.

As the Peregrine lander reaches the moon’s surface, it will mark a historic moment in lunar exploration. The success of this mission could make Peregrine the first U.S. lander on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, a significant achievement for both Astrobotics and the U.S. space program.

This groundbreaking mission, funded under NASA’s CLPS program, sets the stage for future private-sector moon missions. The Vulcan rocket’s maiden flight and the Peregrine lander’s journey represent a collective effort to advance space exploration, with commercial entities playing a crucial role in shaping the future of lunar missions.

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