Friday, May 24

What to know about ULA’s Vulcan rocket mission

Read more about first launch of Vulcan and the Astrobotics lunar mission here.

A brand new American rocket lifted off from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday, and for the first time in more than 50 years, an American spacecraft will be headed to the surface of the moon. The rocket is called Vulcan and was built by the United Launch Alliance company. Here’s what you need to know about his first flight.

Vulcan launched on schedule Monday at 2:18 a.m. Eastern. Coverage continues to air on NASA television.

According to the ULA, the rocket was fired at 3.58pm on Sunday and refueling began after 9pm, with the rocket loaded with more than 1 million pounds of propellant shortly after midnight.

The countdown proceeded without interruption, and the rocket’s engines ignited seconds before liftoff, launching the vehicle into the dark Florida morning. Less than two minutes into the flight, the rocket’s two smaller side boosters ejected, and the liquid methane and liquid oxygen-fueled rocket burned a strange blue color into space.

“Nice and smooth operation of the booster,” a launch official said in the live video stream.

About three minutes later, the Vulcan rocket’s first journey concluded and the vehicle’s upper stage, the Centaur, lit up for a series of maneuvers over the next hour that would send the lunar lander on its lunar journey.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology is sending Peregrine, a robotic spacecraft, which will land in Sinus Viscositatis — Latin for “Bay of Stickiness” — an enigmatic region on the near side of the Moon. NASA is paying Astrobotic $108 million to take five experiments there, part of the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. The program aims to reduce the costs of sending objects to the lunar surface.

The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will replace the company’s two current rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV.

Since the United Launch Alliance was formed in 2006, its primary activity has been launching top-secret military payloads for the U.S. government. Its rockets were expensive – too expensive for most commercial customers – but highly reliable. With Vulcan, ULA is aiming for a larger share of the commercial market. It has already sold more than 70 Vulcan launches, including 38 to Amazon as it builds Project Kuiper, a constellation of internet communications satellites.

The US Space Force would like to see two successful Vulcan launches before putting any of its payloads on board. Monday’s launch is the first certification launch. A second could occur as early as April. That would take Dream Chaser, an uncrewed space plane built by Sierra Space of Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.

If these flights were successful, four additional Vulcan launches this year would deliver Space Force payloads into orbit.

The Navajo Nation opposes the use of human ashes and DNA aboard Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander.

In addition to NASA’s five experiments, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander also carries several payloads for commercial customers. These include Celestis and Elysium Space, companies that memorialize people by sending some of their remains into space.

Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a statement Thursday that he had sent a letter to NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation asking to postpone the launch.

“The moon is deeply rooted in the spirituality and heritage of many indigenous cultures, including our own,” he wrote. “The placement of human remains on the Moon is a profound desecration of this celestial body revered by our people.”

During press conferences, NASA officials noted that they were not responsible for the mission and that they had no say in the other payloads Astrobotic sold on the Peregrine.

“There is an intergovernmental meeting going on with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, a NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a news conference Thursday.

John Thornton, Astrobotic’s chief executive, said Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation has come so late in the game” because his company announced Celestis and Elysium’s participation years ago.

“We’re really trying to do the right thing,” Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good path forward with the Navajo Nation.”