Three days into Christmas will be United Launch Alliance’s last chance to launch its new Vulcan rocket to Earth this year, the company’s CEO announced Tuesday.
ULA CEO Torey Bruno is still awaiting delivery of the upper stage and final round of qualification testing after a test accident earlier this year, ULA CEO Torey Bruno told CNBC on Tuesday, as the first test flight of the Vulcan rocket is scheduled for Dec. 24. Backup launch dates are December 25 and 26, otherwise launch will have to wait until January.
There are threats to that timeline, but ULA officials were confident enough in the timeline to publicly reveal a launch date on Tuesday. They also told Astrobotic, which is flying its first commercial lunar lander on its inaugural Vulcan rocket, to ship its spacecraft from the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh to Florida in anticipation of a December launch.
“We need to finish building the upper stage and ship it there (to Cape Canaveral),” Bruno told CNBC. “There are some qualification tests in parallel. Both tests will be completed in November. The booster is already there ready to launch, and the reason for Christmas Eve is science and orbital mechanics.
“If for some reason anything happens, like bad weather, or some delay in shipping the theater, we can move to January, where there is another similar window,” Bruno said.
Tight launch windows
There are only a few days each month that a Vulcan rocket can take off. This is not ULA’s fault, but rather a limitation imposed by its payload. Astrobotic’s Peregrine robotic lander aims to land in a region on the near side of the moon known as… Groythuisen domesthe site of an ancient eruption of thick lava that solidified into steep, rocky hills.
Astrobotic wants the landing site to be well lit when it arrives, allowing the company’s solar-powered Peregrine lander to return science data from a suite of NASA instruments.
In February, United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, announced May 4 as the target date for the first launch of the Vulcan rocket.
But ULA quickly scrapped that schedule after the upper stage test unit of its Vulcan Centaur rocket exploded during a pressure test in Alabama in late March. The ULA launch team at Cape Canaveral, Florida, continued testing of the Vulcan first stage, with a brief but flawless firing of the two Blue Origin-built main engines on the launch pad in June. Since then, the Vulcan launch campaign in Florida has largely stalled.
Engineers traced the cause of the Centaur’s explosion to a combination of higher-than-expected pressure near the top of the liquid hydrogen fuel tank and a slightly weaker weld. The upper stage designed for the Vulcan rocket is called the Centaur V. It is a wider, twin-engine version of the Centaur upper stage that has flown reliably on several types of rockets since the 1960s.
ULA sent the Centaur V upper stage that was already at Cape Canaveral for the first Vulcan rocket launch to the company’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, for modifications to ensure it would not succumb to the high pressures. It will fly on a future Vulcan mission, while the factory team brings another Centaur V, with additional stainless steel boosters on its front dome, to the production line to fly on the first Vulcan rocket.
Earlier this month, Bruno posted on social media platform X ULA has completed final assembly of the Centaur V upper stage for the inaugural Vulcan launch. Next, there was a round of checks in the high-pressure test cell, installation of insulation, and transportation by boat from Alabama to Florida in preparation for the launch in November. At the launch site, ULA will raise the Centaur upper stage above its already existing first stage, add two solid rocket boosters, and finally raise the nose cone and payload above the launch pad.
But this is not the whole story. In parallel, ULA is powering another Centaur V upper stage by repeating the pressure test that led to the explosion in March. In July, Bruno said ULA engineers wanted to at least partially complete these tests, called qualification testing, to ensure that the Centaur V upper stage could withstand the specific loads it would experience on the first Vulcan mission. Later, ULA will complete qualification testing with a range of different mission profiles, each with different structural stress levels, to ensure the upper stage can handle all of the Vulcan missions in ULA’s backlog.
ULA and its two main customers – the US Army and Amazon – are looking forward to the debut of the Vulcan rocket, which was originally supposed to fly in 2019. It will replace ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets, and the Pentagon selected it in 2020 to launch the rocket. The majority are military national security space missions through 2027, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy taking second place.
SpaceX rockets are flying with unprecedented regularity, while Vulcan has yet to get off the ground. ULA has modified one of the military launch contracts originally assigned to Vulcan to instead fly on an Atlas V rocket, but there are a limited number of Atlas and Delta rockets remaining in ULA’s inventory. They need Vulcan.
Go for shipping
Later this week, Astrobotic’s lunar lander will depart Pittsburgh on a cross-country journey to a satellite processing facility near Cape Canaveral. There, technicians will perform final functional checks, fill the spacecraft with propellant for the descent engines, and remove covers from the cameras and thrusters.
“We’re going to go charging this Friday,” said Sharad Bhaskaran, Astrobitic’s mission manager for the first Peregrine lander, which stands about 6 feet (1.9 meters) tall on its four landing legs.
Founded in 2007, Astrobotic finished final testing on the Peregrine lander in January, when ULA thought it had a shot at launching a Vulcan rocket in the spring. But until this week, Astrobotic had never received a call from ULA giving the go-ahead to ship the spacecraft to the launch site.
“It’s been a very long time coming,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton told Ars on Tuesday. “We are so excited that it is finally here, after 16 years in the making, and we are now finally ready to ship to the launch site.
The mission is one of the first two commercial lunar landers to fly under the banner of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which began in 2018 with the goal of procuring commercial transportation to the Moon for the agency’s scientific instruments. The CLPS program is, in many ways, a precursor to the Artemis program to return humans to the lunar surface.
NASA awarded Astrobotic a $79.5 million contract in 2019 to arrange delivery of its science instruments to the Moon aboard the Peregrine lander. Astrobotic also has another CLPS contract with NASA for a lunar landing with a larger spacecraft scheduled for late 2024.
Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company, recently completed the Nova-C lander for launch later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Like Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines aims to carry NASA payloads to the lunar surface under a contract won by CLPS program.
Astronomical and intuitive instruments are competing to achieve the first successful soft landing of an American spacecraft on the Moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Both companies won NASA contracts in 2019, and initially hoped to launch in 2021. Now, it turns out, both must be ready At about the same time.
“In the end, the timing of our launch is fairly aligned,” Bhaskaran said. “It will be fun to watch Intuitive Machines, and it will also be fun to see our mission get off the ground and then, of course, hopefully have a successful landing.”
Assuming the Vulcan rocket flies around Christmas, it will put the Astrobotic lander into a high-altitude orbit, where it will orbit one orbit around Earth before intercepting the moon a quarter-million miles from Earth about 15 days after liftoff, Bhaskaran said.
“Then we will go to lunar orbit, and then move on to orbital operations before we begin the landing sequence,” he said.
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