Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander arrives in Florida ahead of Christmas Eve Moon-bound launch

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander in the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Florida. The spacecraft will be the main payload onboard the first launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Image: ULA

The first payload teed up for NASA’s industry-led missions to the Moon has arrived in Florida. Astrobotic announced on Halloween that its Peregrine lunar lander was unpacked inside a clean room on the Space Coast after leaving the company’s facilities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday.

The mission will be the first for both Astrobotic and its ride to space, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. President and CEO Tory Bruno said in a tweet on Tuesday that the launch time on Dec. 24 is 1:49 am EST (0649 UTC).

“It’s incredibly thrilling. We’ve been talking about this mission for 16 years as an organization, our first mission to the Moon, and now it’s finally here,” said Dan Hendrickson, Astrobotic’s Vice President of Business Development. “The team is exhilarated, anxious to get off the launchpad and ready to fly. So really, it’s a dream come true now that we’re here.”

Hendrickson spoke with Spaceflight Now on the sidelines of the American Astronautical Society’s von Braun Space Exploration Symposium on Oct. 27, the day that the Peregrine lander hit the road to head down to Florida.

Hendrickson said it will be a fairly straightforward process for them to get to launch, now that they’re in the Sunshine State. He said teams with Astrobotic have been working with ULA for months about the fueling steps, transportation to ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility and integration on top of the Centaur 5 upper stage.

“We built Peregrine in a 100k-class cleanroom in accordance with our standards for cleanliness for the spacecraft. And so, we’ve maintained that environment as it’s transiting and through the encapsulation process,” Hendrickson said. “That process and that flow has been maintained and will continue to be maintained through the launch.”

Peregrine’s path to the Moon

After Vulcan lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and separates from the rocket, Hendrickson said the first step is to power up while it flies on its first phasing loop heading out to a lunar distance.

“So, that gives us an opportunity to check out the vehicle, understand its performance, since it’s the first time it’s flying in space,” Hendrickson said. “It will come back around the Earth. It’ll slingshot and then go out to meet the Moon where it will be at that point.”

Hendrickson said from there, Peregrine will perform a lunar orbit insertion burn to move into a highly-elliptical orbit. Following that, it will enter into a less elliptical orbit and then finally, circularize into a 100 by 100 kilometer ellipse.

The spacecraft will remain in that orbit “until the lunar lighting conditions are just right.”

“We want to land in the early morning at the landing site. And so, we’ll wait for those lighting conditions to line up,” Hendrickson said. “And then, we’ll start to make the powered descent down the surface.”

Hendrickson said because the lander uses as hypergolic (liquids that react spontaneously upon contact with each other) propulsion system, they’re able to linger in this circular orbit before ultimately beginning the powered descent sequence.

“We don’t have any issues with any of the propellant outgassing away over time and so, it gives us quite a bit of flexibility,” he said. “We’ll be fine as far as waiting for any kind of lighting conditions. The full opportunities and launch windows that we have available to us will allow us to linger as long as we need to ultimately for the vehicle.”

A graphic from Astrobotic’s Peregrine User Guide showing the general trajectory of a mission to the Moon. Graphic: Astrobotic

In a nominal scenario, Hendrickson said it would take between 30 to 39 days from launch to landing on the Moon. Assuming ULA is able to launch during their December window, which runs from Dec. 24-26, that would set up a landing around late January 2024.

When asked whether a different launch and landing strategy was considered to allow for a larger launch window each month, Hendrickson said this was their best option.

“We worked with ULA to maximize all the available opportunities. We wanted to make sure that Peregrine has the best possible chance to succeed on its way to the surface and give it the best possible window to land,” Hendrickson said. “So, we worked very closely with them over the time that we’ve been on contract together. It’s been a great working relationship and we found the sweet spot.”

The Peregrine lander is set to touch down at Sinus Viscositatis, which translates to “Bay of Stickiness.” It’s located at 35.25 degrees North and 40.99 degrees West on the Moon.

Hendrickson said one of their partners, DHL, is helping with sharing their journey to the Moon and said the landing would be live-streamed.

Kicking off CLPS

Because of the delayed launch date of Intuitive Machines’ launch of its Nova-C lander, the Peregrine-1 mission will be the first to launch under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. Similar to the Commercial Crew Program, NASA will be a paying customer and will hitch a ride with various payloads on board commercial landers that are heading to the Moon.

If it holds its launch date though, the IM-1 mission should arrive at the Moon’s surface slightly before Peregrine-1 touches down.

Once it’s on the surface, Hendrickson said Peregrine is designed to operate for roughly eight to ten days. They’re carrying 21 payloads onboard, which are a mix of commercial and government items.

Astrobotic was awarded one of the first task orders under the CLPS program back in 2019, which was valued at $79.5 million. It was dubbed Task Order 2 – AB (TO2-AB) by the agency. Originally, it was going to carry up to 14 NASA payloads, of which ten that were considered later in development. However, five were shifted to future CLPS missions, according to an April 2023 update from NASA.

The five remaining NASA payloads are from following Ames Research Center (ARC) Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Johnson Space Center (JSC):

  • Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) – GSFC
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS) – JSC
  • Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS) – ARC
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) – ARC
  • Peregrine Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) – GSFC/European Space Agency

Peregrine-1 will also transport the Iris rover built by Carnegie Mellon University, which is poised to become the first American lunar robot sent to the Moon.

Carnegie Mellon’s Iris rover photographed on simulated lunar regolith. Image: Carnegie Mellon

Another payload onboard will be a technology demonstration called the Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) sensor, which was developed through a $10 million NASA Tipping Point contract in partnership with JSC, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Moog.

“We’re in a GPS-denied environment and so, that sensor is something that we have come to appreciate since the very beginning of our program, that we needed to develop that in house. That’s an incredibly important capability that we need to have for our landers,” Hendrickson said. “It’s an opportunity to test the hardware and also the algorithms that will identify key features visually to help the spacecraft understand where it is in space in relation to the Moon.”

He said they won’t be relying on the TRN to safely land with this first mission, which will allow it to be primarily a tech demonstration. Astrobotic’s second Moon mission, using their larger Griffin lander, will need that capability though, since it’s making a much more precise landing at the Moon’s South Pole.

“We will take performance of that sensor, the data and the full performance that it operates on Peregrine. We’ll learn from that and apply lessons learned then for Griffin for that sensor, which will then be in the loop and be relied upon for that precise landing ellipse,” Hendrickson said.

The Griffin lander is set to launch in November 2024 and will carry NASA’s VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) payload. While they are two different types of landers, Hendrickson said the development of each has helped inform items on the other.

“We try to have commonality between our landers as much as possible and what I’ve been heartened to observe in my time that we’ve been executing on Peregrine and Griffin is watching the lessons learned actually between both programs over time,” Hendrickson said. “They might look very different, they’re carrying different payloads, but ultimately, they’re both lunar lander missions.”

Learning lessons for Artemis too

Astrobotic is not only concerned with landing science and robotic missions on the Moon, but eventually people as well. The company is one of the six corporations involved in the Blue Origin-led National Team, which is developing a crewed lander as part of NASA’s Human Landing System program.

The TRN that will be tested and developed using Peregrine and Griffin will also factor into the Blue Moon lander’s guidance, navigation and control (GNC) system.

“We have organically been developing our own mapping tool for the Moon for years now. So, we’re really excited to help Blue Origin by providing the tools and the background experience that we have,” Hendrickson said. “Certainly, we’ll be sharing lessons learned that we have from this mission as much as possible with the National Team. We’re also helping on the cargo accommodation system for the future.”

He noted that while they are optimistic with this first landing attempt, spaceflight is not an easy thing and that “the Moon is a harsh mistress, as they say.”

“If there are any issues along the way, we will learn from them and we will proceed. This is a program that is built for the long term. We’re here to stay,” Hendrickson said. “We’re really excited to follow up with multiple missions in the future. So, every flight is a learning opportunity, success or failure, doesn’t matter. And we plan to certainly learn from the mission and improve our future missions with all the data and experience that we gain.”

“But again, we’re feeling really good. We’ve been doing a lot of mission simulations over the last few months, practicing all the operations on the way to the Moon: the actual power descent, then the payload operations on the surface,” he added. “We feel ready, we feel confident and we’re excited to go.”