ULA now targets May 4th for first Vulcan launch

According to ULA’s CEO, the company has now scheduled the first launch of its Vulcan rocket for May 4, 2023, a delay of about a month from the previous schedule.

The delay to the new date was caused by a variety of factors. First, the launch window for the prime payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, is only open certain days of the month. Second, that lander is just finishing final testing, and the extra time was needed to get it to Cape Canaveral and stacked on the rocket. Third, the extra time was needed to complete all the dress rehearsal countdown tests prior to launch. However, the biggest reason for the delay appears to have been one of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines.

ULA and Blue Origin are finishing the formal qualification of the BE-4 engine, which Bruno described as the “pacing item” for the launch. “It’s taking a little bit longer than anticipated.”

He revealed that, in a qualification test of one of two engines, the liquid oxygen pump had about 5% higher performance than expected or seen on other engines. “When the performance of your hardware has even a small shift that you didn’t expect, sometimes that is telling us that there could be something else going on in the system that is potentially of greater concern.”

ULA and Blue Origin decided to take the engine off the test stand and disassemble it. Engineers concluded that the higher performance was just “unit-to-unit variation” and not a problem with the engine itself, Bruno said.

If Blue Origin was manufacturing and testing these engines as it needs to do, in large numbers, it would have known a long time ago the range of “unit-to-unit variation” in performance. That this is not known at this late time once again tells us that the company is still struggling to build these engines routinely. Yet it will soon need to produce plenty in short order in order to sustain not only ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule but the launch schedule of its own New Glenn rocket.

The landing sites for two upcoming lunar landers

Map of Moon's south pole
Click for interactive map.

The approximate landing sites for two different lunar landers have now been revealed.

The map to the right, with the south pole indicated by the white cross, shows both, plus the planned landing site for Russia’s Luna-25 lander, presently targeting a summer ’23 launch. The green dot marks Luna-25’s landing site, inside Boguslawsky Crater.

The red dot marks the landing site in for India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander/rover, now tentatively scheduled for launch by the end of ’23. This mission will put a small rover on the surface, and is essentially a redo of the failed Chandrayaan-2 mission from 2019.

The yellow dot in Malapert-A crater is now the likely landing site for Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander. This site is a change from the spacecraft’s original landing site in Oceanus Procellarum (where Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander is now going). In making this change, the launch of Nova-C also slipped to late June 2023, from the previously announced launch date of early 2023.

NASA switches lunar landing site for Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander

Peregrine landing site

NASA today announced that it has changed the planned landing site on the Moon for Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, presently scheduled for launch at the end of March on the first flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

The original landing site for Astrobotic’s flight within Lacus Mortis, which is in the northeast quadrant of the lunar nearside of the Moon, was chosen by Astrobotic to suit its lander performance and safety, as well as Astrobotic’s preferences. However, as NASA’s Artemis activities mature, it became evident the agency could increase the scientific value of the NASA payloads if they were delivered to a different location. The science and technology payloads planned for this delivery to the Moon presented NASA scientists with a valuable opportunity, prompting the relocation of the landing site to a mare – an ancient hardened lava flow – outside of the Gruithuisen Domes, a geologic enigma along the mare/highlands boundary on the northeast border of Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms, the largest dark spot on the Moon.

The white dot on the map to the right shows this location. The original location was to the west of Atlas Crater in the northeast quadrant of the Moon’s near side, where Ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander plans to touch down in April.

This decision by NASA was apparently prompted by the decision to send Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander to Vallis Schröteri in Oceanus Procellarum, which is the rill that flows west out of the crater Aristarchus. Gruithuisen Domes had been a potential landing site for Nova-C, and NASA probably did not want to lose an opportunity to go there.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander passes launch tests

Astrobotic’s first demonstration lunar lander, dubbed Peregrine, has passed its vibration and acoustic tests, demonstrating it can survive launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for the first quarter of ’23.

The lander is now undergoing electromagnetic interference testing, which will be followed by thermal vacuum tests. Once those tests are complete, the company said, it will ship the lander to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to be integrated with the Vulcan Centaur for a launch currently scheduled in the first quarter of 2023. That launch will be the inaugural flight of the Vulcan Centaur.

A great deal will be riding on that first Vulcan launch, both for Astrobotic and ULA.

Astrobotic to build solar power grid for use by others on Moon

Astrobotic's proposed lunar electric grid

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic yesterday announced its plan to build a solar power system on the Moon, using its rovers, thus reducing the weight and cost of other projects.

The graphic to the right illustrates how the system will work. First, vertically deployed solar panels, attached to a small rover, will unfold to produce power. These can be placed in many locations, thus providing each location a source of electricity. Second, an additional rover will be linked to the panel, providing power storage and a moveable wireless charger for transferring power to a customer’s equipment.

Astrobotic plans to begin deploying and demonstrating LunaGrid elements as early as 2026 with the goal of the first operational LunaGrid by 2028 at the lunar south pole. With LunaGrid power service available, a host of science, exploration, and commercial activity can begin sustained and continuous operation.

The biggest advantage of this proposed grid concept is its scalability. To provide more power Astrobotic need only send more panels to a location. The more the merrier. And all can be built in an assembly-line manner, thus making construction very cheap and efficient.

Astrobotic acquires bankrupt Masten

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic announced this week that it has successfully purchased Masten, a bankrupt company that for almost two decades specialized in developing suborbital vertical rocket landing technology.

This acquisition will combine the workforce of the two companies, and give Astrobotic control over Masten’s test sites at Mojave. Since Astrobotic is one of the many companies with a NASA contract to build lunar landers, the experience of Masten’s workers — experienced experts in vertical rocket landings — will be immeasurable.

Astrobotic makes bid to buy assets of bankrupt Masten

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, a startup focused on building lunar and planetary unmanned landers, has now made a formal bid to buy the remaining assets of Masten Space Systems, which had also been a startup focused on planetary missions but recently went bankrupt.

In a filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Delaware Aug. 14, Masten said it received a “stalking horse” bid of $4.2 million for Masten’s assets, including a SpaceX launch credit worth $14 million, from Astrobotic. The agreement, in effect, sets a minimum price for the sale of those assets but does not prevent Masten from seeking higher bids through an auction process that runs through early September.

The agreement appears to supersede an earlier agreement between Masten and a third lunar lander company, Intuitive Machines, included in Masten’s Chapter 11 filing July 28. That agreement covered the SpaceX launch credits alone and Masten did not disclose the value of it in its original filing.

Masten’s long term specialty has been vertical take-off and landing, something it has successfully done for the last several years on suborbital flights. This technology would be of great value to both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines in developing their own first lunar landers.

NASA delays launch of its VIPER lunar rover to over concerns about commercial lander

VIPER's planned route on the Moon
VIPER’s planned route at the Moon’s south pole

In order to do more engineering tests of Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander, NASA has now delayed the launch of its VIPER lunar rover from November 2023 to November 2024.

NASA’s decision to pursue a 2024 delivery date results from the agency’s request to Astrobotic for additional ground testing of the company’s Griffin lunar lander, which will deliver VIPER to the lunar surface through CLPS. The additional tests aim to reduce the overall risk to VIPER’s delivery to the Moon. To complete the additional NASA-mandated tests of the Griffin lunar lander, an additional $67.8 million has been added to Astrobotic’s CLPS contract, which now totals $320.4 million.

Though the press release makes no mention of it, the launch of Astrobotic’s Griffin lander is partly dependent on the launch of Astrobotic’s first and smaller lunar lander, Peregrine, which was originally supposed to fly on the inaugural flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, in 2021. That rocket’s first flight however has been delayed repeatedly because of delays by Blue Origin in completing development of the BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage. It is presently scheduled for early 2023, but that date remains tentative. This new delay of Griffin could be to make sure Peregrine flies first.

Regardless, this new budget increase means that the budget for Griffin has experienced a 62% cost overrun from its original $199 million number. This large increase in what is supposed to be a fixed price contract suggests that Astrobotic has been having some problems unstated by NASA, despite an inspector general report [pdf] that said all was going reasonably well.

Vulcan likely delayed until ’23

According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, continuing delays with both the rocket’s payload and main engines, ULA’s Vulcan rocket will almost certainly not launch before the end of this year, as hoped by the company.

The rocket’s first stage BE-4 engines are being built by Blue Origin, and are already four years behind schedule. According to Berger’s sources, they will not be delivered to ULA until mid-August, which makes a launch in ’22 very unlikely, especially because both the engines and rocket are new, and will need time for fitting and further testing as a unit.

As for the payload, Berger’s assessment is not based on any new information. The payload, Astrobotic’s first lunar lander dubbed Peregrine, has also been experiencing delays, but the article provides no further information on whether it will miss its targets to be ready in ’22.

Regardless, it appears that Blue Origin is still dragging in its effort to build the BE-4 engine. If Vulcan cannot launch this year, it will threaten ULA’s long term future, since the company is depending on it to replace its Atlas-5 and Delta rockets. The delays now are allowing others to catch up and grab business that ULA might have garnered had Vulcan been operational as planned.

Astrobotics unveils nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Astrobotics yesterday unveiled its nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander, scheduled for launch later this year on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

The lander is still being assembled, said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. Remaining work includes installation of its solar panels, two fuel tanks and decks holding payloads. The engines are “just about done,” he said, and will soon be installed.

He was optimistic that remaining work will be done quickly. “In just a couple months’ time, this will be heading out to environmental testing,” he said, followed by shipment to the launch site late this year.

This announcement now strongly suggests that Peregrine would not have been ready for Vulcan’s original launch date in late 2021. Since then the delays by Blue Origin in developing Vulcan’s first stage BE-4 engine has pushed the rocket’s first launch back by more than a year, time that apparently Astrobotics needed to finish Peregrine.

Inspector General: NASA’s lunar rover VIPER mission on schedule, with some cost increases

VIPER's planned route on the Moon

According to a report [pdf] issued today by NASA’s inspector general, the agency’s VIPER lunar rover mission is generally on schedule for its ’23 launch, though it has experienced some cost increases and still carries some scheduling risks, mostly related to the development of Astrobotic’s commercial Griffin lunar lander, and its precursor Peregrine mission that ULA hopes to launch on its first Vulcan rocket test.

Although Astrobotic personnel explained that Griffin’s development schedule is largely independent of its Peregrine mission, the Peregrine Lander—planned to launch in 2022—has multiple systems and subsystems that will also be used on Griffin. Therefore, any technical problems with these systems may adversely affect development of the Griffin Lander because Astrobotic would only have about a year, depending on the Peregrine launch date and start of lunar operations, to resolve the issues prior to NASA delivering VIPER for integration and launch. Furthermore, any failures during the Peregrine mission may lead to Griffin delays as NASA and Astrobotic investigate the failures and develop corrective actions.

In addition, VIPER long-lead acquisitions—such as the rover solar power array and avionics unit—have been affected by aerospace industry supply chain delays caused by COVID-19 as have delivery of computer boards and motor parts. Both of these issues have impacted design verification testing needed for the mission’s Critical Design Review, while COVID-19 also delayed some component development schedules.

Peregrine’s launch has been delayed by a year because Vulcan has been delayed because of Blue Origin’s problems with the BE-4 rocket engine. Though ULA hopes the Vulcan/Peregrine launch can occur late this year, that date remains very much in doubt. Further launch delays would thus threaten the launch of Griffin and VIPER.

As for the cost increases, the IG found that NASA had been forced to increase the budget for VIPER by 18.1%, a relatively minor increase compared to many of NASA’s other big projects. The IG noted however that further cost overruns are very possible, especially if the Peregrine mission experiences problems.

The photo above shows the rover’s presently planned route in the relatively flat area about 85 miles from the Moon’s south pole and near the western edge of Nobile Crater (pronounced No-BEEL-e).

Astrobotic wins contract to land VIPER rover at Moon’s south pole

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded the private company Astrobotic a $199 million contract to provide the lander that place place the agency’s VIPER rover down near Moon’s south pole.

The target date for the mission is late 2023, and is intended as a scouting mission for the Artemis manned landing to follow.

During its 100-Earth-day mission, the approximately 1,000-pound VIPER rover will roam several miles and use its four science instruments to sample various soil environments. Versions of its three water-hunting instruments are flying to the Moon on earlier CLPS lander deliveries in 2021 and 2022 to help test their performance on the lunar surface prior to VIPER’s mission. The rover also will have a drill to bore approximately 3 feet into the lunar surface.

The key to this mission continues to be NASA’s shift from building things to hiring others to build them. If Astrobotic is successfully, they will then be positioned to offer their lander design to others, since it belongs to them, not NASA.

UK company buys space on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Spacebit, a United Kingdom company, has signed a deal to put an instrument on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine-1, set for launch by 2021.

Astrobotic was one of the three private companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers to carry NASA instruments to the Moon. In addition, these companies could sell additional space to other private companies. According to the press release, Astrobotic already has a manifest of sixteen such contracts.

ULA wins private lunar launch contract

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the private company building a lunar lander for NASA, has chosen ULA’s Vulcan rocket for its launch vehicle.

Astrobotic announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a competitive commercial procurement to launch its Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon in 2021.

“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur. This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible. When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise,” said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton.

This is the second contract announcement for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, with the first being Sierra Nevada’s announcement that it would use Vulcan for Dream Chaser’s first six flights.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It appears to me that ULA must be offering very cut-rate deals to get these contracts, since the rocket has not yet flown while SpaceX’s already operational Falcon Heavy (with three successful launches) could easily do the job and is a very inexpensive rocket to fly. These lower prices, instigated by competition and freedom, will mean that funding missions to the Moon will continue to become more likely, even if NASA and the federal government fail to get their act together.