Astrobotic unveils private robotic lunar lander it aims to launch to the Moon this year

This afternoon, commercial space company Astrobotic unveiled its nearly complete robotic lunar lander, designed to take payloads for paying customers like NASA to the surface of the Moon. It marks the first time the company has shown the mostly finished flight hardware for the lander ahead of its launch, tentatively scheduled for late this year.

Called the Peregrine Lunar Lander, the spacecraft is roughly the size of a squat refrigerator, standing just over six feet tall. Five main engines mounted on the lander’s base will help navigate the vehicle through space and eventually allow the vehicle to touch down on the surface of the Moon. The vehicle has various locations it can store mounted payloads for experiments designed to take advantage of the lunar environment and customers who just want their products on the lunar surface.

Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, is one of two private companies aiming to become the first to send a commercial robotic lander to the Moon — and have it land in one piece. The other is Intuitive Machines, based out of Houston, which is building its own robotic lunar lander called Nova-C. Both companies have received multimillion-dollar contracts from NASA to help spur the development of their landers, which, in turn, provide the space agency with a way to get scientific experiments to the Moon. It’s a small part of NASA’s flagship Artemis program, a major effort by the agency to eventually return humans to the lunar surface.

By funding multiple companies, NASA also hoped to spur some friendly competition. Originally, the agency had funded three companies in its first round of contracts, known as the CLPS program, but one of the awardees dropped out. Now, it’s down to Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, both of which are aiming to fly their landers sometime this year.

“Our first priority is mission success, and if it happens to be the first, great,” John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, tells The Verge. “And if it’s not, that’s fine too. Really, success is the most important, but it is the first commercial lander that is unveiled. We haven’t seen any hardware or pictures of [Intuitive Machines’] spacecraft yet.” (Another privately built lunar lander, made by Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL, attempted to reach the Moon in 2019, but didn’t quite stick the landing.)

Members of NASA’s leadership team, including administrator Bill Nelson and Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, were on hand at Astrobotic’s facility today for the unveiling. “This is an exciting time and our commercial partners are very much a part of this,” Nelson said during brief remarks at Astrobotic.

An artistic rendering of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the Moon.
Image: Astrobotic

The lander’s flight structure was presented today, but some tanks, solar panels, propulsion, and other attributes still need to be added to the vehicle. “Obviously the lander is still being built, but it’s far enough along that we can unveil it for what it looks like now,” says Thornton. “And it’s so exciting. It’s 15 years in the making.” Astrobotic declined to provide specifics about the cost of Peregrine or how much it charges customers for a spot on the lander.

For its first launch, the Peregrine lander will carry 24 payloads to the Moon, according to the company. A little less than half are scientific instruments from NASA while the others come from a diverse group of commercial customers. One payload includes a rover crafted by students at Carnegie Mellon, and there is also a micro-rover from the Mexican Space Agency. The lander will house a few rather unique payloads — like a lunar dream capsule from Japan and a physical Bitcoin coin, “loaded” with one Bitcoin. The lander’s target destination is a region called Lacus Mortis — which eerily translates to “Lake of Death.” Once it lands, the Peregrine will attempt to last an entire lunar day, about two weeks, before the extra cold, two-week-long lunar night kicks in.

Astrobotic’s ride to the Moon is still an open question, though. The Peregrine lander is slated to be the very first spacecraft to fly on the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket, a brand new vehicle that’s been under development since 2014. However, the Vulcan is a few years late getting to the launchpad, and it’s still not ready. The rocket is designed to fly on a new engine being built by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin, called the BE-4 — but those engines are also years behind schedule.

Thornton says he’s received assurances from ULA that Vulcan will launch in the fourth quarter of this year, and that the BE-4 engines will be ready in the middle of this year. He says Astrobotic has “no reason to doubt” ULA. “ULA is a storied, successful company,” says Thornton. “So we feel very confident in the launch, and that’s why we booked with them.”

One thing rival Intuitive Machines does have is a contract to fly on a functioning rocket. The company is supposed to fly its Nova-C lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sometime later this year, though Intuitive Machines does not have a date for the flight. As for differences between the two landers, Thornton points to the fact that the Peregrine lander is much more squat than the rather tall Nova-C lander. He also mentions that the Peregrine will fly on “proven” hydrazine fuel, while Intuitive Machines is experimenting with a new cryogenic propulsion system.

“At the end of the day, we’re both in the business of lunar delivery,” says Thornton. “And obviously we think our lander is best suited for our customers, and so far, our customers have overwhelmingly picked us versus the competition.”

2022-04-20 20:16:56