United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur Cert-1/Peregrine Lunar Lander Launch

United Launch Alliance (ULA) plan to launch their first Vulcan Centaur rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 07:18 UTC on 2024-01-08. This will be the Vulcan VC2S configuration with two solid rocket boosters and the standard (15.5 metre) payload fairing. The Centaur upper stage is the Centaur V configuration with two RL-10C liquid oxygen/hydrogen engines.

Weather is forecast to be 85% favourable for launch. If the launch is delayed, weather degrades to 30% favourable the next day and 45% the day after.

The primary payload is the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander, which is intended to deliver multiple payloads with a total mass of 90 kg to the lunar surface under a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract.

A secondary payload, which will remain attached to the Centaur upper stage is the Celestis Enterprise Flight, which will carry cremated remains of a number of people including Star Trek personalities Gene Roddenberry, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, James Doohan, and Nichelle Nichols into heliocentric orbit where they will remain until the death of the Sun unless snatched by some ghoulish Trekkie in the age of personal interplanetary flight.

Here is a pre-flight preview from Everyday Astronaut.

As ULA is up for sale, ULA shareholders Lockheed Martin and Boeing have a lot riding on this launch.

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The launch was a complete success. The Astrobotic lunar lander has separated from the Centaur upper stage and is on its way to the Moon.

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Here is a live tracker that will follow the Peregrine-1 lander on its voyage to the Moon. It will take 45 days to reach the final lunar orbit from which it will descend to the surface.

After releasing the lunar lander, the Centaur performed a short burn to escape from Earth orbit into a heliocentric disposal orbit, after which it was safed (releasing residual propellants) and powered down. The Celestis “memorial” payload remains attached to the Centaur.

This is Scott Manley’s pre-launch look at the development history of the Vulcan rocket, what it means to United Launch Alliance, and the missions is is planned to launch.

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“Anomaly…”

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With the success of the BE-4 engine, one naturally turns to New Glenn. Will the first flight involve a dummy payload or will they risk a load of Kuiper satellites?

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According to the current manifest,

As of November 2023, the first launch is expected to take place no earlier than August 2024, carrying NASA’s EscaPADE spacecraft to Mars

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Astrobotic’s Peregrine One will not be landing on the Moon

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The mission may be lost, but their transparency and effective public affairs communications are admirable.

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Here is complete rocket camera video from the Vulcan Cert-1 launch. Only engine burns are shown: coast phases between burns are elided.

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These videos are remarkably vibration free. I recently watched the movie “First Man” about Neil Armstrong. Every launch scene showed such intense vibration that cockpit instruments could not be read. Is it a case of that was then, this is now? Or - gasp - did Hollywood get it wrong?

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In this case, the cameras are fixed to the rocket structure, so they’ll tend to vibrate along with the structure itself, which is reasonably rigid. So, there may be vibrations, but the camera is vibrating along with the rocket, so you don’t see much of them in the video.

In the Apollo launches, the spacecraft was at the top of a 100 metre stack of three rocket stages with the first stage engines all the way at the bottom, so there were natural vibration modes which were excited by the engines, and consequently felt more in the spacecraft.

I don’t recall any of the astronauts launched on the Saturn V saying the instruments were difficult to read. There was certainly a lot of vibration and they could feel the wiggles as the engines steered, particularly shortly after liftoff, but in all the ride was generally described as smoother than those of the Atlas and Titan (which had less mass to damp out the vibration). After the first stage of the Saturn V was jettisoned, the second stage burn was described as "smooth as glass”. Liquid hydrogen engines are less prone to combustion instabilities than oil burners, and smaller engines run more smoothly than big ones.

I think Hollywood may have been exaggerating the vibration of a Saturn V launch. After Apollo 12 was struck by lightning, astronaut Dick Gordon had no difficulty finding the SCE to AUX switch in an obscure corner of the instrument panel and flipping it to save the mission.

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I doubt this would have been possible if vibrations rendered the instruments unreadable.

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Working with NASA, we received inputs from the space community and the U.S. Government on the most safe and responsible course of action to end Peregrine’s mission. The recommendation we have received is to let the spacecraft burn up during re-entry in Earth’s atmosphere.

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Despite the propulsion system issue, the Astrobotic Mission Team has worked tirelessly to stabilize the vehicle, turn on all active payloads, and enable the collection of payload data. The spacecraft has been operating in space for 6 days and 16 hours, and Peregrine continues to leak propellant, but now at a very slow rate. Yesterday afternoon, we test fired one of the main engines for the first time. We achieved a 200 millisecond burn and acquired data that indicated Peregrine could have main engine propulsive capability. However, due to the anomaly, the fuel to oxidizer ratio is well outside of the normal operating range of the main engines making long controlled burns impossible. The team projects that the spacecraft has enough remaining propellant to maintain sun pointing and perform small maneuvers.

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Peregrine will soon return to Earth’s atmosphere and the vehicle is now about 234,000 miles away. We are working with NASA to continue updating and evaluating the controlled re-entry path of Peregrine. We do not believe Peregrine’s re-entry poses safety risks, and the spacecraft will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. We are validating this through analyses in collaboration with the U.S. Government. We will continue to operate the spacecraft and provide status updates through the end of the mission.

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On 2024-01-19 Astrobotic and NASA held a media teleconference discussing the Peregrine Mission One failure. Participants were:

  • Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for Exploration, Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters
  • John Thornton, CEO, Astrobotic

This is an audio-only recording of the conference.

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