Private spaceflight startup Astrobotic has secured a rocket to launch its lunar spacecraft for the first time. The company’s Peregrine Lunar Lander — designed to carry multiple payloads to the surface of the Moon — is slated to ride on top of an Atlas V rocket, made by the United Launch Alliance, sometime in 2019. The rocket will carry the lander into Earth orbit, and from there, the Peregrine will travel the rest of the way to the Moon.
The plan is for the Peregrine to actually share a ride into space with a satellite. The satellite will be deployed first, and then the Atlas V will drop off the Peregrine into its intended orbit. ULA and Astrobotic haven’t signed a launch contract just yet, so it’s unclear exactly when the launch will occur and what the main payload on the Atlas V will be.
Still, it marks a big step for the Pittsburgh-based company, which aims to set up a DHL-like delivery service to the Moon. “Our goal is to make the Moon accessible to the world,” John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, tells The Verge. “It’s making it possible for every space agency and every corporation and even individuals to send payloads to the lunar surface.”
That goal is mirrored in the Peregrine’s first mission: on its inaugural flight, the six-foot-tall lander will carry at least 11 payloads from space agencies and organizations from all over the world. Mexico will be sending up a micro-rover on the Peregrine, marking the first time the country has ever sent something to the lunar surface. A group in Japan will also send up a time capsule, filled with hopes and dreams of school children from Asia. The lander is even going to carry a laser communication system, which will allow HD videos, photos, and maybe even a VR experience to stream from the Moon. Astrobotic also has the option of carrying even more payloads for this flight, depending on the weight.
The mission will only last about one lunar day, which is about two weeks on the Moon. After that, the lander will experience a “lunar night” — a 14-day period in which it won’t receive any direct sunlight. During that time, temperatures can drop down to -298 degrees Fahrenheit, close to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Chances are the tech won’t survive the cold, says Thornton. There are no plans to bring the lander back to Earth.
Originally, the Peregrine was intended to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize, an international competition to send the first privately funded vehicle to the surface of the Moon. But the company withdrew from the contest before the end of last year, due to time constraints. In order to win the X Prize, competitors have to launch their vehicles before the end of this year. “It was not realistic for us to fly in that time frame,” says Thornton. “We chose to focus on our payloads and business instead.”
There’s still quite a lot to do before Astrobotic’s first mission can happen. The company unveiled the full-scale prototype of the Peregrine lander at the Paris Air Show last month, and it’s still developing and testing components of the vehicle. Next year, Astrobotic hopes to do a full review of the vehicle’s design, and if that’s successful, the company will start ordering parts and building the spacecraft.
But the company is really striving to meet its 2019 deadline, since it’s the year of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission the Moon. “It’d be a great way to kick off the next generation of lunar exploration,” says Thornton.