A brand-new American rocket is on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and for the first time in more than 50 years, an American spacecraft will be headed toward the surface of the moon. The rocket is called Vulcan, and it was manufactured by United Launch Alliance. Here's what you need to know about her maiden voyage.
When is it launching and how can I watch it?
The launch is scheduled for 2:18 a.m. ET on Monday. Coverage will be Broadcast on NASA TV Starting at 1:30 am
The rocket was powered up at 3:58 p.m., according to ULA, and the mission countdown is proceeding “smoothly.” Forecasts continue to give an 85 percent chance of improved weather. If the launch is postponed to Tuesday, weather conditions will deteriorate, with only a 30 percent chance of favorable conditions.
There are additional launch opportunities on January 10 and January 11.
What moon mission is heading into orbit?
Astrobotic Technology in Pittsburgh is sending Peregrine, a robotic spacecraft, to land in Sinus Viscositatis — Latin for “Bay of Stickiness” — a mysterious region on the near side of the moon. NASA is paying $108 million to Astrobotic to conduct five experiments there, part of the space agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS, program. The program aims to reduce the cost of sending items to the moon's surface.
What is the Vulcan missile and what is its importance?
The Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will replace the company's two existing rockets, Altas V and Delta IV.
Since the United Launch Alliance was founded in 2006, its main business has been launching top-secret military payloads for the US government. Its missiles were expensive – too expensive for most commercial customers – but very reliable. Through Vulcan, ULA seeks to capture a greater 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 happen as soon as April. This would lift the Dream Chaser, an unmanned spaceplane built by Sierra Space in Louisville, Colorado, on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.
If successful, four additional Vulcan launches this year will carry Space Force payloads into orbit.
Why does the missile payload raise controversy?
The Navajo Nation objects to human ashes and DNA found 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.
On Thursday, Navajo Nation Chairman Bo Nygren said in a statement that he had sent a letter to NASA and the US Department of Transportation calling for the launch to be postponed.
“The moon is an integral part of the spirituality and heritage of many Indigenous cultures, including our own,” he wrote. “Putting human remains on the moon is a profound disdain for this celestial body that our people hold sacred.”
During press conferences, NASA officials indicated that they were not in charge of the mission and that they had no direct say in other payloads Astrobotic has sold on Peregrine.
“There is an intergovernmental meeting being prepared with the Navajo Nation that NASA will support,” Joel Kearns, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration, said during a press conference on Thursday.
Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said on Friday that he was disappointed that “this conversation came up so late in the game,” because his company had announced the Celestis-Elysium partnership years earlier.
“We're really trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Thornton said. “I hope we can find a good way forward with the Navajo Nation.”
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