ULA's Vulcan Centaur hopes to rocket into Christmas

Meanwhile, ESA looks to SpaceX for help with Galileo constellation

United Launch Alliance's (ULA) first certification mission of its Atlas V replacement, the Vulcan Centaur, is set for near the end of the 2023 with a Christmas Eve launch.

The maiden flight is due to take-off on December 24 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Backup opportunities exist on December 25 and 26. The next launch window is in January.

ULA boss Tory Bruno said in an interview that the company expects to complete construction and qualification of the rocket's upper stage in late November ready for the long delayed launch.

Bruno explained that orbital mechanics determined the narrow launch window. The rocket will be carrying Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander, which is targeting a specific location on the Moon and requires both particular lighting conditions and contact with the Deep Space Network.

Also along for the ride will be a non-separating payload for Celestis, containing the ashes of people who wish to be "buried" in space.

Bruno said he expected "several" launches in 2024, which he anticipates would ramp up to once every two weeks in 2025. Not quite a SpaceX Falcon 9 cadence, but enough to soothe the nerves of jumpy Project Kuiper managers.

The first Project Kuiper satellites were originally scheduled to fly on the Vulcan Centaur, but delays in the development of the rocket – not least caused by the late delivery of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, another Jeff Bezos company – resulted in the prototypes being launched on the outgoing Atlas V.

However, problems with the upper stage prevented the launch of the Vulcan Centaur earlier this year. An explosion during testing meant that the company needed to make changes to the stage before the Vulcan Centaur could be launched.

Should the launch go off without a hitch, the pressure will be on to hit Bruno's promised cadence, which is essential if Project Kuiper is to reach the number of satellites in its constellation as required by the FCC.®

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