NASA science bound for Moon after successful Vulcan Centaur launch

Your turn, Starship

The relief was palpable as United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched the first of its next-generation Vulcan rockets.

The Vulcan Centaur is intended to replace the workhorse Atlas V rocket and the Delta IV Heavy. But it has been plagued by development problems and delays, not least the late delivery of the Blue Origin BE-4 engines required to power the first stage.

The launch occurred at 0218 EST, January 8, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The mission included two payloads: Astrobotic's first Peregrine Lunar Lander – Peregrine Mission One – and the Celestis Memorial Spaceflights Enterprise flight.

The mission was dubbed Cert-1, and a second mission, Cert-2, will be required to complete the US Space Force's certification process. A US national security mission is planned for the summer.

The Peregrine lander will take approximately 46 days to reach the lunar surface, and NASA has five science and research payloads on board.

Following a scheduled February 23 landing, NASA expects to spend ten days gathering data from the instruments. These include a linear energy transfer spectrometer, which relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft's 2014 uncrewed flight, and the Ion-Trap mass spectrometer, which was previously developed for the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Rosetta mission.

The mission is part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative and represents the agency's first return to the lunar surface in more than half a century.

This is unless you count missions such as the Lunar Prospector, which also returned to the Moon's surface, albeit at a deliberately high speed, to generate a plume from the crash for study by scientists. Or perhaps the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which followed a Centaur stage to the Moon's surface, relaying data from the plume generated by the stage's impact before itself impacting a few minutes later.

ULA has sold more than 70 Vulcan launches, including 38 missions for Amazon's Project Kuiper. Jeff Bezos will also be breathing a sigh of relief at the launch's success, not just for the green light it gives for Kuiper launches on the rocket. The BE-4 engine is also to be used for his rocket company's New Glenn, which is also due to make its much-delayed maiden flight this year.

After the lengthy gestation period of ULA's latest, the company hopes to reach a bi-weekly launch cadence. While the current iteration is entirely expendable, there are hopes that the engines might be made recoverable and reused in a future upgrade.

Today's successful launch marks the start of a busy 2024 for rocket fans. As well as a hoped-for first flight for the New Glenn from Blue Origin, Arianespace is set to debut the Ariane 6 too.

And you never know, SpaceX might also manage a Starship mission without the rocket exploding prematurely. ®

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