One Small Step for Lunar Commerce

Onetime Google XPRIZE contender Astrobotic inks a deal with United Launch Alliance.

Astrobotic Peregrine.jpg
Astrobotic's Peregrine Lander.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, once considered a frontrunner for Google’s $20 million Lunar XPRIZE until it withdrew from competition last December citing unrealistic deadlines, announced recently that it has chosen United Launch Alliance as its partner for a planned moon landing in 2019—the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.

While the selection of a ULA Atlas V rocket as Astrobotic’s taxi service to geosynchronous Earth orbit is new, the remainder of the plan has been in place for some time: Astrobotic’s Peregrine landing craft will take three to six months to ride the gravitational fields of Earth, the moon, and sun, then make its final fall to the lunar surface. To go faster costs a lot more. (Peregrine will not be the only passenger aboard that Atlas V, by the way, but Astrobotic spokesperson Carolyn Pace said that the rocket’s “primary” passenger has not been announced.)

Peregrine’s journey is depicted in this animated video uploaded by Astrobotic. (Note the DHL logo on the side of the lander.)

Astrobotic Lunar Mission Profile on Atlas V

Space policy analyst James Muncy—who notes that he is a registered lobbyist for Moon Express, one of Astrobotic’s competitors—said in an e-mail that the announcement would likely benefit both parties, though it does not necessarily mean either of them have the resources on hand to pull off a lunar mission.

“Astrobotic is motivated not only by the potential spur to private investment in their mission, but also to show NASA and Congress that they are real, and therefore NASA should design their lunar landing service acquisition to fit their capability and Congress should fund it,” he wrote. “ULA is motivated by their interest in a Cislunar economy, where their world leadership in [hydrogen-oxygen stages is an advantage, and by a desire to partner publicly with entrepreneurial space firms to make them look more nimble/risk-taking.”

The low-energy descent that Peregrine will fly has been used for successful landings in at least three prior instances: NASA’s GRAIL in 2011, the Japanese space agency’s Hiten in 1990, and the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 in 2003. Astrobotic says Peregrine will deliver 77 pounds of payload to the surface on its first descent, and will have the capacity to carry up to 584 pounds on future missions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton believes business will see an uptick once the company has a successful landing under its belt, and that the increase in customers will allow it to offer faster, costlier routes to the moon.

Those who wish to start planning for when Astrobotic’s lunar delivery surface opens for business can download their Peregrine Lunar Lander Payload User's Guide here.

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